Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Slums of Heaven

For generations, people have been searching for the answer to the ultimate spiritual question, “What is the Meaning of Life?” But it’s a stupid question, because it’s loaded, vague and subject to personal interpretation.

First of all, the question presumes that life has meaning. Life may be meaningless; get over it.

Secondly, the answer to the question, if there is one, is different for everyone, because what’s meaningful for one person may not be meaningful to another. Does the answer have anything to do with God? Love? Responsibility? Ethics? Brotherhood? Afterlife? Personal Growth? Victory? Humility? The list goes on and on. Pick one - that’s your category of “meaning.” Your neighbor will pick something different. Even if you manage to work out some sort of “meaning,” people with the same category will come up with different answers.

But the worst part of the ultimate question is that even if you find the answer, it’s useless, because you can’t trust it. How many people will actually accept the answer if it disagrees with their expectations? Most people will engage in “curve fitting,” adjusting the answer until it falls into their belief system. Those who triumphantly claim to have found the answer are lying to you, but worse, they’re lying to themselves.

For these reasons, it occurred to me that people have been asking the wrong question. There’s a much better question. One that isn’t loaded or vague. The answer will differ for everyone, but that’s OK, because it’s a personal question, and everyone already knows the answer.

Call me a cynic, but I think the answer can be found on page one in the playbook of every salesperson who ever walked the earth: “How much are you willing to pay?” Car salesmen who work on commission have been asking this sly question for a century, lulling the customer into a sense of control.

This question can be applied to every situation, every decision, and every moral quandary. It has nothing to do with money, although in the case of moral quandaries, money is often a factor. Payment can be measured in time, energy, consequences, etc.

For example, most people devote one day a week to spiritual maintenance. Is that enough? How many days a week are you willing to attend church services to ensure that your personal relationship with God isn’t leaking oil?

And for those worried about an afterlife, how much are you willing to pay to get an acceptable deal for eternity? If you believe in reincarnation, how much karma are you prepared to deposit to come back as a higher mammal instead of an intestinal parasite?

Some people are incapable of answering these questions for themselves, so they rely on others to give them an answer. That’s why we have a clergy who dictate the price (prayer, music, lectures, community service). But if they work on the same principal as salesmen, they’re getting a commission, which they cash in after death to live in a nicer part of heaven. Do you suppose that heaven has slums? That’s where I’m headed.

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