The Dream Called Reality: Some Scattered (and Unoriginal) Musings on Metaphysics and Hope

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I am not a human. This is only a dream, and soon I will awake. It was too cold and the blood froze all the time”

—Per Yngve Ohlin

“What were those deathly creatures that flew out of the golden box? They were the ills that beset mankind: the spites, disease in its thousand shapes, old age, famine, insanity, and all their foul kin. After they flew out of the box they scattered–flew into every home, and swung from the rafters–waiting. And when their time comes they fly and sting–and bring pain and sorrow and death.

“At that, things could have been much worse. For the creature that Pandora shut into the box was the most dangerous of all. It was foreboding, the final spite. If it had flown free, everyone in the world would have been told exactly what misfortune was to happen every day of his life. No hope would have been possible. And so there would have been an end to man. For, though he can bear endless trouble, he cannot live with no hope at all.”

—Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes, The Greek Gods 

Some months ago, I had a rather interesting experience. It wasn’t supernatural, but it was rather surreal. Early in the morning, at around 5:15 AM or so, I started walking downstairs for breakfast before I heard a noise. It was the sound of someone walking into the kitchen and switching on the light. Figuring it was probably my sister or her husband, I thought of returning to my room, since I preferred to eat by myself (I generally don’t like to talk during meals unless the subject matter interests me). But I decided to wait just in case the person downstairs was just going for a quick refrigerator raid before heading back to their room.

So I stood there in the middle of the staircase, and waited. You might say that it felt as if my life had temporarily stopped. The whole thing felt mysterious somehow. A collocation of atoms that had coincidentally come into being, the collocation of atoms that was me, was standing still in the darkness at a particular time and place, waiting for another collocation of atoms to exit a particular location. And this collocation of atoms was asking itself whether meaning really existed in a meaningless universe! I felt strange as I observed what was otherwise a very ordinary and mundane event.

If memory serves, at this point my thought process went something like this: is my life and this universe truly meaningless? They appear to be meaningless, objectively, but what if that meaninglessness was actually part of a massive illusion? What if the world in front of my eyes, as well as the events that occur around me, were products of God’s dream, as the Advaitins claimed? Gazing at the walls around me and the ceiling above me, I wondered if I really was existing inside the mental emanation of a Grand Architect.

Depending on how you look at it, imagination is either a blessing or a curse, or both. Imagination enables us to peer beyond the world we have, but it also prevents us from being content with the world we have. Imagination is the reason why life is such a tease. With the mind’s eye, we can look at anything we desire, but rarely are our deepest desires granted. Immortality may not exist, but we can imagine being immortal. True freedom certainly does not exist, but we can imagine being free. We may not be Gods, but we can imagine ourselves as Gods.

The ability to dream, along with skepticism, is the reason why I am able to cling onto sanity and hope in the prison of the real. Reality may be absolute, but my perception of it isn’t, because there is no way for me to know for sure whether or not it’s accurate (as far as I can tell). It may look like this world is real and that my life in it is real, but I am basing that on my own empirical observations; if everything around me were an illusion being fed into my mind, my observations would be rendered moot.

The word “dream” not infrequently enters daily speech. “This is like a dream,” “This is a dream come true,” and “The man/woman of my dreams” are some of the most common examples. It is often used to describe a superlative experience, like a joyous marriage or winning a championship. It’s as if we instinctively know that things usually don’t go our way in the real world, and that it is almost like a miracle when a cherished wish comes true.

Which leads me to the following question: Which is more real, our lives in the waking world or our lives in the dream world? Are dreams a parody of waking life, or is it the other way around? I’m using the word “real” in two senses here: real as in being a part of reality, and real as in being the opposite of counterfeit.

Most of us have had nightmares. Many of us know what it’s like to fall off a cliff or to run away from a shadowy entity, only to end up rooted to the spot.

Sometimes we wake up in our dreams. We notice that something is off, and that leads to the realization that we’re not in reality. If only there was a way to wake up from reality! For reality is a nightmare, a nightmare with moments of calm and sweetness, but a nightmare nonetheless. Depending on who we are and where the currents of causality take us, the nightmare takes on different forms. For some, it may take the form of something overt, like domestic violence or war. For others, it might take the form of something subtle, like a soul-killing job or a decaying marriage.

Apocalypse, that is, an ascent into heaven or a descent into hell (metaphorical or literal), is, needless to say, a ubiquitous theme in not only religion, but also in philosophy and the arts. There is no shortage of dramatic structure that describes an absolute beginning, middle, and end.

On one side, this view is challenged by those who take a cyclical view of history, represented by the likes of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, on one side, and those who take a Darwinian view of history, represented by the likes of Alexander Rosenberg.

Even if we are to assume that these thinkers are right about there being no straight narrative to history as a whole, it seems to me that the concept of there being such a “narrative” to individuals lives, remains unshaken. If there is no reincarnation, then birth, life, and death comprise not so much a cycle as a sequence. Each and every individual undergoes his or her own Apocalypse.

A possibility that possesses me is the possibility that life is an actual story, with a real plot. A story written by whom, you might ask? Maybe a cosmic playwright, or each individual’s “higher Self.” With this possibility in mind, I can continue to have hope in the face of the darkness I see–for the simple reason that the darkness is followed by dawn.

As far as I know, no one better represented this outlook than Per Yngve Ohlin, to the extent that he could be seen as a symbol for it. I suspect that he saw his whole life as a nightmare; that would explain why he surrounded himself with ugliness, decay, and pain, routinely mutilating and starving himself, using paint and soil to make himself look like a corpse. Perhaps he did such things so that he would never lapse into a dull acceptance of the nightmare as being all there is.  

Which leads me to the next question, which is a question that has probably been asked the day humankind discovered philosophy: What lies on the other side of life?

According to the worldview that I hold, the answer is quite simply–nothing. For if atheism is true, nihilism is true, evolution by natural selection is true, the mind is a function of the brain, etc., I have no reason to believe that my existence will somehow continue after the cessation of the electro-chemical activity in my brain.

The rub lies at the level of assumptions. As a skeptic, I recognize that all of the positions I hold are provisional and tentative. For all I know, I can be a brain in a vat–or, better yet, a spirit tricked into thinking he is a body, much in the same way that one might be fooled into thinking that one is a dog/cat/hamster/etc. during a particularly peculiar dream.

So that is the trillion dollar question: is this–all of this I see in front of me–real? I do not think this question can be brushed aside lightly, because the metaphysical question is the fundamental question, which must be answered accurately before proceeding any further. Unfortunately, I doubt that the means to do so are accessible to us. The metaphysical question is a complex and confusing mathematics problem with no answer key. As far as I can see, we are stuck with what seems and not what is. But that can be encouraging, because it is ignorance, not knowledge, in which room for hope lies.

The Shawshank Redemption and the Prison of the Real

By Jin-yeong Yi

Park in France (photo by Georges Noblet)

“[A fundamental mistake of man is] to think that he is alive, when he has merely fallen asleep in life’s waiting room.”

—Idries Shah

“What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there you plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if you when you awoke you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Why is The Shawshank Redemption the #1 film on IMDb? People regularly question the wisdom of the multitudes on this count, as can be seen from posts on the movie’s forum.

Having watched it for the third time last weekend, I can say with confidence that The Shawshank Redemption is the film for our age–for all ages, past and present.

Freedom, or at least the idea of freedom, is tremendously important to most people. Did Patrick Henry not say 238 years ago,

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”

The thought of freedom is constantly on our minds, and the word is constantly on our lips. In this light, it’s no mystery that The Shawshank Redemption would strike a chord with so many people. We don’t need freedom to survive, but we need freedom to feel that survival is worth the trouble in the first place.

Once during a visit to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine (I can’t remember which) in Japan, I was conversing with a fellow exchange student who was an atheist and an individualist anarchist. At one point he asked me, “How do you define freedom?” As an aspiring Orthodox Christian at the time, who was inspired by the lives of the saints, I could only think of one answer: “Freedom is freedom from vice.” My interlocutor conceded that there was some merit to my definition, but he was obviously dissatisfied. We drifted away from this subject shortly after. (Interestingly, we watched The Shawshank Redemption together with some other people during a short sojourn in Kyoto.)

Years later, after having accepted atheism and nihilism, my definition of freedom changed radically. Now I define freedom as having no restrictions on the will, having no barrier between fantasy and reality. In other words, to be free is to be able to do anything one can imagine doing. My definition of prison expanded to the same degree. Now I define prison as a state in which freedom is restricted in any way whatsoever. Prison is not merely political–it is metaphysical. It is the boundaries of time and space, the laws of nature.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions the theory that life is a prison. Life is not a prison; life is what is being trapped and suffocated in prison, its potential stultified by its walls.

Some might argue that prison is nothing more than a matter of perspective. The unhappy fate of Brooks could be adduced for this view. However, if the message was that prison is completely internal, that prison is in the mind and nowhere else, then the film would not have been about Andy escaping Shawshank, but instead accepting it and finding peace within its walls. Prison is very real, as real as anything–and only part of it comes from within. The question is: is freedom real?

Despite the fact that the chief villain in The Shawshank Redemption is a piously Christian man without an atom of compassion or empathy, I do not view the movie as being antireligious or anti-Christian. I do, however, see it as being heavily naturalistic. There is no God who cares, no liberty, no justice, no miracles. Andy Dufresne is innocent of the crime he is charged with, but Lady Justice is not omniscient and there’s no God to rectify human errors…and “justice” is a human construct to begin with. There is no Lady Justice. There is only Lady Luck, and she’s blind as she is indifferent.

Furthermore, Andy is a man of science rather than a man of faith. His weapons of choice are not scripture and prayer, but the practical tools of logic, mathematics, physics, and geology. He is well-versed in the rules of reality. And it is with this knowledge that he is eventually able to win freedom.

But this film is not about science. It’s about something that is innate in humanity, something that existed long before science did.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.” Beauty is one of the things that keeps Andy going, whether it is the sublime beauty of a Mozart record, the sensuous beauty of a Rita Hayworth poster, the noble beauty of a genuine friendship, or the transcendental beauty of a cherished dream.

One day, Andy fortuitously receives a recording of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro given as a library donation. Understanding the power that music has to sustain and revitalize the human spirit, Andy risks severe punishment to play the record on the public address system. Why exactly he decides to do this is not completely clear, but my guess is that he wanted to remind everyone in Shawshank State Penitentiary that their tiny world is not the entirety of the universe, that life and its possibilities extend far beyond what their eyes can see.

Mozart’s music flows out of the speakers like cool, pure, crystal-clear water in a hot desert. Red describes the moment thus:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

Free from worry, free from fear, free from the confines of language, free from the world and its petty rules. All the walls and shackles vanish, leaving only a glorious moment, however transient, in which fantasy and reality unite.

The message of The Shawshank Redemption does not seem to be that only the Andy Dufresnes of the world can find redemption. If it was, the film would be relevant to only a small segment of humankind. Not everyone is blessed with Andy’s ambition and determination, to say nothing of his level of intelligence and education. The key to redemption is, if nothing else, something that just about anyone can find within themself: hope.

Returning from two weeks in solitary confinement, Andy joins his friends in the mess hall, and the following dialogue takes place:

Y-y-you couldn’t play somethin’ good, huh? Hank Williams or somethin’?

They broke the door down before I could take requests.

Was it worth it? Two weeks in the hole?

Easiest time I ever did.

Bullshit. No such thing as easy time in the hole.

That’s right, a week in the hole is like a year.

Damn straight.

I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.

So they let you tote that record player down there, huh?

[Taps head, chest] It was in here…and in here. That’s the beauty of music; they can’t…get that from you. …Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?

I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.

Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.

Forget?

Forget that…there are…places…in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s a…there’s something…inside…that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.

What’re you talking about?

Hope.

Hope. …Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You better get used to that idea.

Like Brooks did?

Pace Red, it can be argued that the “inside” is where hope has the most use. Hope is not necessarily false expectation; it can be the feeling that maybe, just maybe, things will turn out better than expected. Hope is not a belief in the inevitability that one’s dreams will come true; hope is a belief in the possibility that one’s dreams will come true. Hope is the inner flame that give one the strength to persist, to endure in the face of all odds. As Andy later tells Red:

[H]ope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies. 

If one wants a basic guide to life in the prison of the real, one need not look any further than The Shawshank Redemption. Its advice is simple and sound: educate yourself and keep your wits about you. Be good to others. Retain your integrity and self-worth. Fill your life with beauty. Persist. Above all, never, ever accept prison as an absolute. Keep hoping and dreaming…until the bitter end.

Beauty and hope are intertwined. Like hope, beauty may, in the last analysis, be nothing but an emotional reaction, but in any case it gives me the feeling that maybe, just maybe, true freedom is not only possible, but that it is also waiting on the other side.

Ring of dark matter (Hubble Space Telescope)

All these landscapes are timeless,
And this is all just a part of cosmos,
But all is mine and past and future is yet to discover…
Much have been discovered, but tomorrow
I will realise I existed before myself.

I will be reborn
Before I die.

I will realise planets ages old,
Created by a ruler with a crown of dragon claws,
Arrived with a stargate…
A king among the wolves in the night…
An observer of the stars.

—Emperor, “Cosmic Keys to My Creations and Times”

What is Freedom?

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Liberty? Why it doesn’t exist. There is no liberty in this world, just gilded cages.”

—Aldous Huxley

For me, the fundamental problem of life is not suffering or “sin.” The problem is unfreedom. From my perspective, this world is fundamentally a prison. Prison is not so much a place as a state, a state in which freedom is restricted in any way. In this sense, prison extends far beyond the gray walls of the buildings in which offenders of the law are confined. Schools are part of this prison. So are places of worship. So are offices. Supermarkets. Restaurants. Libraries. Movie theaters. Hospitals. Malls. Bars. Casinos. Airports. Roads. Beaches. Forests. Mountains. Tropical islands. Even home sweet home is, at the end of the day, a glorified jail cell. A free-range prison is still prison. No matter where we are or what we are doing in our waking lives, we are slaves to time and space, our imaginations shackled by the immutable decrees of nature.

This state of unfreedom is not limited to a particular geopolitical region or era. If the historical record speaks the truth, there was never any “Golden Age” in the past, and it seems most unlikely that there will ever be one in the future. While I am not indifferent to the earnest and unceasing efforts to improve the human condition, I recognize that the best I could hope for from the sum of all ideological, military, and scientific victories is a more comfortable incarceration. You can’t redeem a prison, even supposing that you manage to eradicate war, poverty, ignorance, and corruption and develop technology that is indistinguishable from magic. The invisible yet palpable metaphysical walls and shackles that deny us true freedom would still remain. The only real redemption is escape.

Along with everyone else, I am serving a prison sentence that will come to an end only when I die. Any sentence here is a life sentence. I recognize that in all likelihood nothing I do will ever change this. No matter how my fortunes change, those vicissitudes will always occur within the context of a metaphysical Shawshank. Even if all the world’s wealth were to fall into my lap tomorrow, the most I would be able to do is purchase a more luxurious corner of this prison in which I exist. I would be comfortable, but not free.

What is freedom? When we think of freedom, we often think of political rights or something along those lines, when real freedom would be existing in a state where there is no need to bother with politics in the first place. Indeed, per my definition, real freedom would mean existing in a state where there is no need to bother with anything at all, even the laws of nature. In other words, true freedom is being able to do anything you can imagine yourself doing–to be a God.

I don’t believe that we will ever know an existence outside of prison. But since hope, unlike belief, does not require justification, I continue to hope that liberation does not mean extinction, and that I and everyone else will one day live life as free men and women. I may be wishing for the impossible, but I don’t think I would be able to settle for anything less.

Therefore I Pray to Politics to Make Me Free of Politics

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The theory that the universe is run by a single God must be abandoned, and that in place of it we must set up the theory that it is actually run by a board of gods, all of equal puissance and authority. Once this concept is grasped all the difficulties that have vexed theologians vanish. Human experience instantly lights up the whole dark scene. We observe in everyday life what happens when authority is divided, and great decisions are reached by consultation and compromise. We know that the effects, at times, particularly when one of the consultants runs away with the others, are very good, but we also know that they are usually extremely bad. Such a mixture of good and bad is on display in the cosmos. It presents a series of brilliant successes in the midst of an infinity of bungling failures.”

—H. L. Mencken

“Liberty of the people is not my liberty!”

—Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own

Arthur Schopenhauer, whose pessimistic writings arguably rival the Book of Ecclesiastes, deliberately paid little attention to politics. As he put it, he minded “not the times, but the eternities.” While I sympathize with this way of thinking, I tend not to ignore politics for the same reason that I don’t ignore the rat race. I recognize that these things affect me directly, and that if I want myself and the people around me to at least be comfortable in the prison in which we exist, I’d do well to devote a reasonable amount of time and energy to them. This is simply one of those “necessities” that come with the “real world,” or what I prefer to call the “lowest common denominator world.” Each of us is a God or Goddess of our own world, but we’re forced to exist in a common world where no one is truly in control (though just about everyone fights for control). In this common world, politics is one of the mechanisms by which the conditions of our common prison can be improved or worsened.

So I do my part, as infinitesimally trivial as that may be, reasoning that doing something is better than doing nothing. I vote, and I advocate any ideas and policies that appear to be the best bet for creating an optimum balance of individual freedom and collective stability, as well as an environment in which the arts and science can flourish. Whether my politics can be called liberal or conservative or libertarian–or a mixture of these–is not terribly important to me. Whatever I may be out of practicality, I am fundamentally an individualist anarchist in spirit–for me, true freedom would not come through politics but from being relieved from the necessity of bothering with politics in the first place.

The Perfect Dream

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Who lives longer: the man who takes heroin for two years and dies, or the man who lives on roast beef, water, and potatoes till ninety-five? One passes his twenty-four months in eternity. All the years of the beef eater are lived only in time.”

—Aldous Huxley

On the night before New Year’s Eve, before going to bed, I watched Galaxy Express 999 for what was probably the sixth time. I’d planned to do this before the arrival of the new year, and how wonderful it was to see this movie again and be reminded why exactly I cherished it. This viewing, however, was especially different. This time I understood what the movie actually meant to me.

Summarizing a 113-episode anime series clocking in over 37 hours in a 2 hour feature film naturally entails a great deal of simplification, and no doubt this makes the movie “inferior” to the original series in many ways. But it was precisely that brevity which helped me to realize a few things about the movie as well as fiction itself. What occurred to me for the first time that night was that Galaxy Express 999 was the perfect dream, the kind of dream that I had always wanted to have. I think the movie describes something that many of us have longed for at some point in our lives: an epic poem that is not read but lived, with oneself as the hero.

The narrative of Galaxy Express 999 is an epic poem lived within a dream. It would be impossible for me to make sense of the movie by looking at it in any other way. It would be impossible for me to get around the tremendous implausibility of it all: a homeless teenager accompanied by an immortal princess from another planet, traveling to different worlds on a space train, meeting space pirates, infiltrating a castle (complete with human skulls decorating the stairs) and killing the cyborg who murdered his mother and kept her body as a trophy, and almost single-handedly annihilating an entire planet and surviving to tell the tale with nothing but a few bruises at most. It’s a dream that has a sense of completeness, containing heroes and villains,  joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, glory and dishonor, love and hatred, beauty and ugliness.

Needless to say, plausibility doesn’t matter in the dream world. After all, what makes the dream world great is precisely what makes it different from the real world–not being bound by rules. The moment you step into the universe of your mind, the laws of nature no longer apply. This strange world needs no apology for absurdities. Things happen, and you don’t question any of it. You just go with it. Because it’s all about experience. It’s about living life without limitations. Living life to the full.

The Sandbox of the Gods

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The brain is wider than the sky, / For, put them side by side, / The one the other will contain / With ease, and you beside.”

—Emily Dickinson

A Japanese translation of the title of American Unitarian Universalist writer Robert Fulghum’s widely parodied collection of essays, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, reads, “Jinsei ni Hitsuyou na Chie wa Subete Youchien no Sunaba de Mananda,” which may be translated as “All the wisdom I need in life I learned in the sandbox in kindergarten.” The key word here is the word that was added to the original: sandbox.

This sentence helped me to realize what I really want to do in life: play! Unlike most activities, play is not engaged in for the sake of something else, but for its own sake. Here the line between goal and accomplishment is blurred.

In some schools of Hindu thought, the cosmos and all events within it are said to be the product of creative play (lila) by Brahman, or God. I can think of no grander mode of existence. It’s as pure as it is unrestricted. And it turns out that a humble pastime of small children, and not the worldly ambitions of adults, bears the closest resemblance to life as a God.

Hence my near-obsession with the dream world–it is a limitless sandbox in which one can, in theory, do just about anything that one can imagine oneself doing. In the universe that exists within the depths of one’s mind, no barrier exists between imagination and realization. In the dream world, to imagine something is to make it real.

Until Everything Rots in Hell

By Jin-yeong Yi

“[The] knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”

—Albert Einstein

“Conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and deeply interested therein, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. Now such is this freedom of man’s will that everyone boasts of possessing, and which consists only in this, that men are aware of their own desires and ignorant of the causes by which those desires are determined….As this misconception is innate in all men, it is not easily conquered.”

—Baruch Spinoza

“To understand everything is to forgive everything”

—Gautama Buddha

“Pardon’s the word to all! Whatever folly men commit, be their shortcomings or their vices what they may, let us exercise forbearance; remembering that when these faults appear in others, it is our follies and vices that we behold. They are the shortcomings of humanity, to which we belong; whose faults, one and all, we share; yes, even those very faults at which we now wax so indignant, merely because they have not yet appeared in ourselves. They are faults that do not lie on the surface. But they exist down there in the depths of our nature; and should anything call them forth, they will come and show themselves, just as we now see them in others. One man, it is true, may have faults that are absent in his fellow; and it is undeniable that the sum total of bad qualities is in some cases very large; for the difference of individuality between man and man passes all measure.

In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World”

“Happiness and misfortune, rise and fall, health and sickness, glory and dishonor, wealth and poverty; everything comes from God and must be accepted as such.”

—Elder Michael of Valaam

“Feeble, vain mortal, thou pretendest to be a free agent. Alas! dost thou not see all the threads which enchain thee? Dost thou not perceive that they are atoms which form thee; that they are atoms which move thee; that they are circumstances independent of thyself, that modify thy being; that they are circumstances over which thou hast not any controul, that rule thy destiny? In the puissant Nature that environs thee, shalt thou pretend to be the only being who is able to resist her power? Dost thou really believe that thy weak prayers will induce her to stop in her eternal march; that thy sickly desires can oblige her to change her everlasting course?”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature

“Everything begins with choice,” says Morpheus. I disagree, not because I think choice is an illusion (pace the Merovingian), but because I think there is something that precedes choice: predilection. The latter makes the former possible. Ultimately, our decisions are predicated on our preferences for (or inclinations toward) one outcome over another, and we certainly could not have chosen our preferences.

As someone who not only believes that free will doesn’t exist, but that it is impossible even in theory, I look upon ressentiment as being utterly empty and meaningless. I can blame and condemn people as much as I want for the “evil” that they do, but I recognize that it is mistaken to believe that the root of “evil” lies within them. The notion that it does rests on the assumption that people somehow designed their natures before coming into the world, which is absurd. It is practically tantamount to saying that acorns determine what kind of trees they will grow into, or that the apples which grow on trees choose to be fresh or rotten. In other words, people did not choose to be who they are. They did not choose their level of intelligence, physical constitution, or character. They did not choose their place of birth, which means that they did not choose the options available to them or the cultural influences that shaped them in their earliest formative years. In other words, they did not choose the initial parameters of the trajectory of their lives, which in turn proceeds via an unbroken process of cause and effect.

The futility of acting on ressentiment is a major, underlying theme of the anime series Hell Girl[1]. Someone requests the damnation of a certain person at the cost of their own soul, convinced that the permanent removal of the offending individual will pave the way for a happy life , or at least a peaceful one, when all they will have done is destroy a manifestation of conflict, not its fundamental cause (a la the classic example of the hydra and its many heads). Conflict manifests itself in an infinite variety of forms, and none of these forms are self-created. The true cause of conflict is not this or that entity, but a whole web of connections between entities. But we tend to blame the manifestations because they are readily perceivable; they have faces, unlike the unseen forces which drive them.

We see the consequences of ressentiment in our world all the time, whether they come in the form of shooting sprees, ethnic cleansing, domestic violence, individual murder, or systematic passive-aggression. These are the ramifications of the mistaken notion that people have chosen to be what they are. If there is something that bears true responsibility for the human condition, it is God–that is, the laws of nature as revealed by mathematics and science. God is the ultimate source of all pleasure and pain, all kindness and cruelty, all joy and sorrow, all love and hatred, all beauty and ugliness. God determines what is possible, what is probable, and what actually takes place, and God’s decrees are absolute. Nonetheless, if we desire change, we must act. If we desire to live in harmony as a civilization, as a species, in the brief time we are together on this earth, we have little to gain from turning on each other under the pretext of “justice.” We can start looking upon what we regard as “evil” as an illness to be cured, rather than a choice to be punished, and treat it accordingly.

Maybe unconditional forgiveness, then, is the way of the future. We might acknowledge that responsibility extends far beyond the level of the individual and learn to forgive others–as well as ourselves–unconditionally, not because we are somehow obligated to do so, but because that may be the only way humanity can break free from the age-old cycle of self-destructive hatred and start looking for methods of healing instead of vengeance. We do not have to forgive or heal. But neither do we have to withhold forgiveness and healing.

Ai Enma, the anti-heroine of Hell Girl, declares that there will be no end to resentment, that it will persist “until everything rots in Hell.” Maybe she’ll be proven to be right. But fatalism is unjustified as long as the future is uncertain. I daresay there’s still hope for us, even without free will, because we still have the capacity to learn and change our ways. We can never turn this world into Heaven, perhaps, but we can always move in that direction, away from Hell. Whether that is something we actually want or not is up to us.

Notes

[1] See Hell Girl: Two Mirrors, episode 6 and Hell Girl: Three Vessels, episodes 9-10.