The night rose and reclined across the silky expanse of sky, and, as expected, the sun appeared the next morning, as we wrestled away from sleep and leaned into the light. Caught in an infinite web of assumptions, my home, my life was simply categorized by endless sunsets and sunrises, lightness and darkness. My future, more or less a fill in the blank, with college, spouse, children in parentheses. And lately, I had been craving to snake past those lines, discover life in the spaces between those words in the, some would argue, predestined book of life. Thus, I set out of my preordained boxes, popping my comfortable, American bubble and handed my boarding pass to the drained and overworked attendant, lipstick smudged on her cheek.
I wondered if I should be the one to tell her, whether it mattered, whether it would be rude to embarrass her, whether I should let her dwell in the always blissful ignorance. But alas the moment slipped away, the unsaid comment trailing behind the wheels of my suitcase.
I piled into my unfortunate middle seat. Two too many Big Mac Americans squished in on either side of me, both pressing meaty forearms on the armrests. A whiff of strong, generic cologne invaded my nostrils vaguely overpowering a funky body odour. The flight attendant who I had feebly muttered hello at earlier, drew on a bubbly smile and demonstrated safety procedures. I glanced down at the travel guide in my lap. There it was: Rome, Italy, in foreboding bold letters. The almost 14 hour flight made me ache for a chance to extend my legs and run, preferably back to a home with home cooked food and a significant dose of personal space. I stayed put the entire flight, as my row mates snored on. Admittedly, because I feared the uncomfortable interaction where I would have to practically climb over a stranger twice, because, as they would be informed, my bladder was full.
The Leonardo da Vinci International Airport was a behemoth of glass and metal. I struggled to find function in the exorbitantly high ceilings. I drew in a deep breath before I took that step out of the airport, finally stepping onto Italian soil. It was not exactly what I expected, or perhaps the expectation of exaggerated Italian hand gestures, pizza dough constantly twirling, the scent of marinara sauce heavy in the air was a bit foolish. Yet, I suppose, I wasn’t truly in the city yet. I hailed a taxi, unfolding my newly acquired map of Rome and pointing to the city center. I pressed my cheek to the window. It was surprisingly familiar, yet foreign all the same. The wide, busy pavements of America, forgotten for nostalgic, romantic cobblestone streets. I haphazardly handed the driver a wad of alien cash. He smiled broadly at me, pulling out his cigarette. “Ciao bella,” he waved, language I recognized at last. Money would make anyone beautiful.
An oppressive heat beared down on my shoulders and I pulled at my sticky long sleeve shirt washed in airplane fumes. I tugged my suitcase closer to me, tightening the straps on my backpack and set out on a brisk stroll to the hotel room I had purchased for the next night. I purposefully requested a location that would require a walk, so I could take in the heady culture of Rome. Beeping cars and motorcycles rushed past me chaotically. I got a few wry smiles, as locals glanced at the tourist in a black thermal, leggings, backpack and suitcase protectively around her. My throat grew parched and began to regret my choice to walk with my luggage. I threw down one Euro to a streetside vendor for an icy bottle of water. I held up my map in front of me, straining my eyes. My fitful sleep on the plane catching up to me. Fifteen Keys Hotel in the Monti Neighborhood was finally within sight. A nondescript, grey building squished between two others. Beautiful arched windows promised relief from the heat. The hotel was an expanse of clean, white modern lines, with a hint of elegant, European crown moldings bordering the ceilings. I dumped my bags on my bed, grateful for international levels of comfort.
My all expense paid trip promised luxury in every destination. The irony of my trip being extravagant and posh was not lost on me. Yet, I couldn’t care as I sunk into the lush bed. My thoughts unwittingly wandered back to that day almost a month ago. Wedged into my newest library book, was an envelope. It’s seal was already broken. It was addressed to ‘You’. A persevering curiosity propelled me to nudge up the envelope. A black express credit card slipped out, along with a note written on simple cardstock.
‘What is the meaning of life?’ It questioned in a fancy scrawl. Along with it, a bundle of plane tickets headed for locations across the world and an itinerary. ‘Enlightened, you will return.’ I couldn’t tell whether it was a promise or an order. It was ironic, that I was setting out to find the meaning of life when I had a consistent debate with myself whether life had meaning at all in addition to an intense contemplation with death, but I had deduced the consequences would be too detrimental to my family. Yet, if well-written, would be a great college application essay for my younger sister.
I don’t remember when I fell asleep, as my drowsiness cradled me in its clutches. I awoke, rearing from a nightmare, my breathing heavy, eyes blinking rapidly. I glanced over to the window, a rapidly rising dawn approached. I showered, dressed and secured my backpack, before heading out. I walked in the already stifling early morning air. I past by the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, it’s ostentatiously ornateness startling me. It’s grandness dared you not to look at it, knowing it had stood there for over a thousand years, it seemed to expect it. A busy street, lined with three or four story buildings outlined my walk to the 081 Cafe. With my pastry in hand, I hailed a white taxi to the Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Castel Sant’Angelo or the Mausoleum of Hadrian was a rotund building, gated by a fortress like wall. Statues lined the bridge up to the building, I blended into the hordes of tourists, leaning against the walls of the bridge, peering over the peaceful Tiber river. For a moment, a desperation to slip back in time to when the Emperor Hadrian ruled and people constructed lavish castles, purely to house their dead bodies, rushed over me. Hadrian had been a benevolent dictator and history had treated him well.
After wandering around, I took another cab to the Forum of Caesar or Foro di Cesare, walking the brief distance to the ruins. I sat on a rock a little ways off, with vines set to devour it and tucked up my knees to my chest. Roman columns stood neatly, yet age still clearly weathered them. My heart ached, as I imagined what it had once been. I thought about Julius Caesar, the famed Roman politician and general, who built it. For Caesar, the concept of war was relatively simple. “I came, I saw, I conquered,” he famously said. As a person, never embroiled in war, never facing an approaching army, weapons drawn, I struggled to imagine Caesar’s life. His life catalogued by triumph and loss, a virtuoso in the art of war. War, humans strategically killing each other, for land, or power. What mindset must have Caesar accepted? Our perception of reality apparently shifts during a war. At night, did the bodies piled by his hand haunt him or was he only punctured by pride? Yet, Caesar was kind to his conquered, with a renowned generosity. How did he shift his perception so quickly? Shifting from seeing the conquered from enemies, a mindset necessary for killing without guilt, to seeing them as people, with lives and feelings.
In ancient times, war was theorized to be either inevitable due to the nature of man to seek power or for economic gain or because a organized group of humans couldn’t help but lead to war. As Thucydides noted about the Peloponnesian Wars, “Love of power operating through greed and through personal ambition was the cause of all these evils.” And thus the cause of war. Sigmund Freud thought to not destroy ourselves, we must destroy others. Yet, war does not populate some societies, therefore not entirely universal. And accordingly some argue, human aggression is a learned behavior.
Nevertheless, some argue in favor of war, especially the Roman poet Juvenal, “Now we suffer the evils of long peace. Luxury hatches terrors worse than war.” Peace corrodes, while war improves is the general consensus, at least in regards to the Roman Empire.
I watched a family a few yards away from me. Two young children, an older boy around the age of ten and a girl, a few years younger. The girl was holding a toy. The boy reached for it quickly, attempting to yank it out of her pudgy fingers. But she held tight, exclaiming loudly. They both pulled at for a moment, until the girl reached up with her other hand and pinched his arm hard. Wincing, he let go of the toy and the girl held it close to her chest in victory. If they were older, the heads of two powerful armies, this would have resulted in war. Bloodshed spilling into bloodshed, until some careful maneuver was made, like the pinch to the arm. And, then the boiling resentment would stir in the boy, until inevitably they fight again.
I sighed, rising from my perch, marking a brisk pace back, passing Foro di Augusto and the Foro di Nerva. I hailed another cab to the restaurant Aroma for lunch. I enjoyed creamy, decadent pasta, and scallops, admiring the view of the Colosseum from their grand, outdoor terrace. The walk is not far as my stomach aches uncomfortably, because the Colosseum is my next stop. For my months, my stomach had ached in mutiny after a meal, at this point I couldn’t tell whether it was because of a lactose intolerance or my own dark wraith of body insecurities.
As I walked around the Colosseum’s imposing magnificence, gradually I grew used to it or at least I tried to, so I would stop gasping in grandeur. The Colosseum is the largest amphitheater ever built and that was almost two thousand years ago. I trailed behind a tour guide, as I partook in this small section of the tour.
The Colosseum was home to the infamous Gladiator games, where death was fascinating entertainment. By looking at the ancient Roman culture, it is not difficult to see how they flourished and encouraged war. Because if death is entertainment, then what is war, but an endless theater.
The tiresome Italian sun pounded upon my frame. As I carted myself back to the hotel room, packing my bags quickly and heading to the Roma Termini for the train to Florence. The train ride, under two hours, was painless. The city of Florence, arguably the center of the Italian Renaissance, was a mass of light or tan buildings with earthen red roofs, enunciated by the Duomo, the famous cathedral built by Brunelleschi.
But tonight, I was headed a little ways out of the city to the home of the infamous Niccolo Machiavelli. It was a farmhouse, constructed of brick, surrounded by sprawling fields. In the distance, you could see the city. I paid for a tour, walking through the house of the most discounted, vilified characters of the renaissance. Machiavelli introduced, the then revolutionary concept that war was a political tactic: an augmentation of political values and goals. An intelligent leader, Machiavelli argued, used war to acquire more land as well as more political influence in demonstrating the might of his army. He suggested, that by studying history, leaders could better fight wars and not repeat historical mistakes. The ends justify the means, he famously noted. In war, I suppose, the ends must justify the means, or the moral guilt would crush us all.
Was war necessary or only a tool chose to be wielded? Could we, as human beings, ever progress beyond the destruction of war?
Wars used to be dictated by the gods, as divine interplay shifted the tides of war. We used to have gods of war, yet now the prevalent Christian god is supposedly omnibenevolent and our wars are more gory than ever. When Oppenheimer detonated the first atomic bomb, he quoted Vishnu from Sanskrit scripture, “Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds.” War, an ever changing entity, will soon be more deadly than ever as deaths are counted in terms of the hundreds of millions.
Machiavelli thought it was better to be feared than to be loved as a leader. I do not know what was his reasoning, but I imagine, because fear is far more durable than love.
I took a taxi back to L’Osteria Di Giovanni restaurant, a wide archway tucked into a stone building in tight, cobblestone streets. A cozy, friendly dining area greeted me, as my traveler weary body collapsed in a chair. My meal was as fantastic as it was familiar. The buzz of soft Italian slipped through the room. Another lone traveler, joined me for my meal, an American as well, from the midwest, outfitted in a leather jacket and lightweight pants. He had been on the road for months.
I explained to him my mission.
War, he told me, is something of an old friend in his family, in descending from a long line of generals. He had seen it shake his father, his grandfather, passing on long bouts of insomnia as memories fiercely combat sleep. And still, he was imbued in the romanticism of it all since he can remember. His father’s badge adorned jacket revered by his younger self. He tells me how he will join the army, when his trip is over. His parents were entertaining him for a month or two. And when he stepped off that plane, his responsibilities will swallow him once more.
Later, we wandered across the narrow streets together, as Florence comes to life. We purchase gelato, chocolate for him, hazelnut for me.
When we part, he tells me to write him when I discover the meaning of life. I recently emailed my theory to him, to only learn he had died in an ambush in the Middle East.
I retired to the Firenze Number Nine Wellness Hotel, my duplex suite awaiting me.
The next morning, when darkness still painted the sky, I took a taxi to the Florence Airport, taking the flight to Prague, Czech Republic. I snoozed for the duration of the three and a half hour flight. I arrived at the Vaclav Havel Airport. It was a quick thirty minute drive to the Aria Hotel Prague. We passed by the St. Nicholas Church, a grandiose, towering church, topped with jade green domes and a clock tower through wide, cobblestone streets congested with heavy traffic. The elegant, renowned difficult Czech language drifted through the city streets along with a heavy dose of English. My hotel, a refined, classic building with like most of the buildings of Prague, had whiteish walls and a startling red roof, surrounded by a carefully groomed garden. I enjoyed lunch in their garden, the pleasant balmy weather, accompanied by a light breeze.
Then I departed across the wide, dignified Vltava River to the Old Jewish Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. I wandered into the cemetery, countless gravestones, some precariously leaning, almost on top of one another populated the grassy forest floor. My footsteps were soft and reverential as I walked through.
My hands traced over the gravestones, almost unwittingly. It was difficult in this place, not to think of death, that final breath, as it hovered in the air. Death, a mystery we’ll never be able to solve, wondered about for centuries. As human beings, who are constantly aware of our own impending death, our finishing, so we pour this acute meditation upon it.
Many fear death. Yet, Socrates said, “To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know...And what is this but the shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?” How can we pretend to know something, that we do not know, is what Socrates argued as well as Confucius. Although, I would argue that it is the not knowing, the unsteady ignorance, that drives the most fear. Humans again and again have been shown to fear what we do not know, whether that be fellow humans who look different than us, or witchcraft or God. Death is another unknowable.
Yet, Socrates reasoned that death could only be one of two things: an endless, dreamless sleep or where everyone were disembodied minds, souls, having stimulating philosophical discussions for eternity. That’s why, Socrates argued, to exercise your mind over your body, because your mind will be with you forever. Socrates even looked forward to death in his prison cell. “Death may be the greatest of all human blessings,” he concluded.
Religion has given us plenty of options for a possible afterlife, however none are pleasing enough to my rational mind. It seems we are unable to be content with the fact that we simply cease to exist. Milan Kundera, a Czech/French writer, wrote, “To be mortal is the most basic of human experience and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn’t know how to be mortal.”
However, several philosophers like Epicurus, believe it is ridiculous to be frightened of death. “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.” We will never interact with death, so why fear it?
A disciple of Epicurus, introduced this symmetry theory. If we do not fear the time before we were born, why do we fear the time after? Because logically, they are the same, the same state of nonexistence. But I would maintain that the time after is all the more horrifying, and troublesome, because we know what we are missing. We already know life in all its wonderful complexities.
Mark Twain thought, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
Lao Tzu came to the conclusion, “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” Often the fear of death holds too much power over people and sometimes prevents us from living truly, and what a horrendous occurrence, because life is too much of a remarkable thing to be ignored.
Yet, death is incredibly important, a necessary cycle of life. Immortality is not to be desired, as Borges wrote, “Death...makes men precious...every act they execute may be their last...Everything among mortals has the value of the irretrievable and the perilous.” Franz Kafka, a Czech writer, wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, was a renowned pessimist. “The life of a man is a struggle for existence with the certainty of defeat,” he once said.
Yet, Napoleon said, “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”
I walked around the cemetery for a while more, before cutting through to the gothic, historic synagogue, the Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535 by a prominent Jewish family of Prague.
The first floor presented pictures drawn by the children of concentration camps, their lives already immersed in death at such a young age. The walls were covered completely by all 78,000 names of the Czech and Moravia Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
I wandered into the main area of the synagogue. People lined the pews, clothed in black. A young woman stood at the back of synagogue, offering me a tallis, a prayer shawl. “Thank you,” I murmured. I quickly slipped it over my shoulders, taking a seat. The funeral service was not in English, but the Hebrew was the same I had heard since my childhood. Everyone rose for the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer of mourning, that doesn’t mention death at all. A woman rose from the pews, her body shaking with sobs. The grief and torment almost tangible in her dark eyes.
Zhuangzi theorized we should not fear our loved ones’ death, because we celebrate every other passage of life, why not celebrate the last one. Rationally, I see the merit, but emotionally that seems impossible. Death is the passage that ends all possibilities, the conversations you forgot to have, the sights they didn’t see, the milestones they didn’t complete. How can we celebrate the end of possible? I think humans are fundamentally afraid of change. And death is but the greatest change of all.
Yet, Heschel wrote, “Death, then, is not simply man’s coming to an end. It is also entering a beginning...For both life and death are aspects of a greater mystery, the mystery of being, the mystery of creation.”
I stared up at the woman, clearly mourning a loved one. Tears streamed a familiar path across her face.
However, this person who has passed, has not truly died, because as seen by the full synagogue, he has not been forgotten. A proverb states that good men must die, but death cannot kill their names. In the tradition of some Latin American cultures, the dead go to either the land of the remembered or the land of the forgotten. Carlos Ruiz Zafon wrote, “ That as long as we are remembered, we remain alive.”
And, death teaches us to appreciate life, propel us to live life to the fullest, “Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more,” Virginia Woolf declared.
I stare up at the picture of the older man, hung in front of the room. Where ever death took him, I hoped he knew how loved he was.
I thought about Odysseus, offered the gift of eternal life with Calypso and yet as Martha Nussbaum noted, “he chooses the life of a human being, and a marriage to a woman who will…age and die… He chooses…not only risk and difficulty, but the certainty of death…” Being human is worth dying for.
I snuck out of the synagogue, before the crowd departed. I pressed a kiss to my fingers than pressed it to the wall.
Across the street, I got dinner at the Restaurace Kolonia, a cycle themed restaurant. I was practically alone in the restaurant, given the Czech people eat much later. I enjoyed knodel, boiled dumplings, Smažený sýr, fried cheese and Kulajda, soup with quail egg. I depart back to my hotel, my mind rumbling and head to bed early for a good night sleep.
The next morning, I caught a cab to the village of Lidice. The village of Lidice, was the site of a horrendous massacre of mainly Czech Jews during the Holocaust. I was headed to the memorial. My eyes were still wracked with sleep as I murmured to the taxi driver and told him my destination. The concierge told me it would only be a half an hour, yet the minutes stretched. Finally, we approached a small town, with buildings far and few between. I handed the driver a collection of koruna, Czech currency and headed out to find the memorial. “Memorial?” I questioned at the few locals I passed. They began speaking in rapid Czech and I just went off to find someone else. Frustration ached in me, I stopped in one of the stores, “Memorial?”
He shook his head, “No memorial.”
My eyes widened, “You speak English.”
“I...speak...English,” his words were slow, each one deserving great thought.
“Where is the memorial for the Lidice Massacre?”
I cocked my head, “Yes...Lidice.”
“No Lidice. Tišice”
“This is not Lidice?”
“No Lidice. Tišice,” he repeats.
I mumbled a few choice words. “How far is Lidice?”
He held up one finger.
I sighed. “Where are taxis?”
He shook his head, “No taxis.”
I narrowed my eyes, “No taxis?”
He held up his finger, “I drive you, you pay me.”
“How much?” I put my hands on my lips.
He smiled, putting his hands up, “Only thousand koruna.”
I chewed on my lip. “Ok.”
He lead me out behind the store to a red, rusted truck, it felt like the only place it should be driven was the junkyard. I swallowed uneasily.
The drive to Lidice was bumpy and uncomfortable, nausea rose in my throat. I unrolled the window and gazed doggedly at the horizon to avoid an upchucking. Yet, there was something undeniably peaceful about the wind, the silence and the stranger beside me who had offered me a ride. We drove through the countryside, the streets lined with lush greenery. The Lidice Memorial immortalized the Lidice Massacre where the entire town of Lidice was brutally murdered by the Nazis. By the time it was over, 173 bodies lay in the orchard, shot ten at a time. Of the 81 children of Lidice only 17 survived the war.
I walked up the field, the history hummed beneath my feet to the memorial specifically for the Lidice Children. Bronze children huddled together on a block, raised above the ground, their faces grim as death was imminent. Their lives taken from them; death forced upon them. I ducked under the chain protecting the memorial and stepped onto the pedestal beside them. I followed their line of sight, history wavering as I could see the Nazi soldiers: shiny, black boots, guns aimed, expressions almost bored. Next to me, stood of the statue of a young girl, wide eyed. I knelt down next to her, wrapping my arm around the warmed bronze statue, my other hand tightly wrapped around the Star of David necklace around my throat. My chest heaved, as I clutched that child, who had died before her time. Wracking sobs tore through my body: loud, and irrepressible, mourning for a child I never knew, I never met.
An unknown author once wrote a short exchange between life and death. Life asked death, “Why do people love me, but hate you.” Death responded, “Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.” A truth we cannot pretend to ignore as it pours into you like the glassy stare of an unbreathing child.
A whistle cut through the summer air. Angry Czech voices followed. I stood suddenly and noted the angry voice was aimed at me. My face flushed guilty, as I ducked out from the iron chain and took off at a run towards the road. My tears like feathers floated off my face, leaving me lighter and my feet pounded against the soft dirt. My breath came in short spurts, the wind brushing against my face. I felt alive: beautifully and undoubtedly alive.
When I arrived back in Prague, I visited the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge and had dinner in the Jewish Quarter at La Veranda.
That night, I caught an evening flight to Paris. The two hour flight let me arrive in Paris at ten o’clock. The swell of fluid French voices swam through the air. I leaned against the window of my cab, as I watched Paris, blanketed by night. My hotel, La Réserve Paris Hotel and Spa, was a grand, white stone building, highlighted by a tall, rounded red door. The woman that spoke to me with gorgeous French lilting English, that I wished I could capture with my own voice.
My room was obnoxiously ornate and luxurious. Child-like giddiness consumed me, as Paris at night time twinkled through the window. I leaped onto my bed, bouncing up and down. I whooped, then collapsed into giggles. I walked out to the patio, breathing in that legendary Parisian air.
I woke up, stretching out on the bed. I walked to Ladurée, arguably the prettiest patisserie in all of Paris. I took a cab to the Gallery de Lafayette. A dazzling, opulent dome covered the high end mall. I spent the morning shopping, refurbishing my suitcase. My mind never dipped deeper than the mundane: the light, frilly thoughts of life. I thought I deserved a day, free of contemplation, to recover, then to dive deeper into my thoughts. In the evening, I visited the Eiffel Tower, eating dinner on its highest tier: Paris laid out below me.
The next morning, I took the metro to the Lourve. I wandered around the priceless works of art, my hands respectively behind my back. My world was reflected back at me in oil paints. My thoughts wandered, to a concept always wavering in the back of mine. It was all incredibly beautiful, yet how could I be sure, it was actually there, and not just a figment of my wild imagination.
My dad once challenged me, by asking that I prove my existence, his existence, the car we were driving in. At first, I was confident: I was seeing him, hearing him. He probed further, proving that I should doubt my senses. I began to realize that I had nothing to prove my existence. I couldn’t prove that anything exists. The mortal world that I had been so sure of seemed to dissipate between my fingers. “Cogito ergo sum”, I think, therefore I am, he told me: René Descartes. The more I began to understand Descartes’ answer the more I began to actively examine the world around me. Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power. My thoughts serving as my grounding point, not to drift off into insanity. This was my first entry into solipsism. However, solipsism is a lonely state of being. At first I was driven crazy by the fact that more people weren’t troubled by the lack of proof in our material world. I constructed rapid poetry, not comprehending how could people devote their whole lives to science, something which essence they could not prove. Still, at night, when my thoughts were my only interacting point, the world seems to drift away from me, then I was an individual simply creating a world by means to entertain myself in the lonely days of eternity.
But this was a shallow foray in the realm of reality versus perception. George Berkeley had a different idea that was only taken seriously posthumously. He believed that when the human mind observed something, it is brought it into existence, when we cease observing it, it simply ceased existing. Esse est percipi or to be is to be perceived. Berkeley amended that G-d was constantly observing the objects around us, thus their continuous existence.
Immanuel Kant adapted this idea, stating that not all knowledge was gained from experiences, some are independent of it. He called it a priori knowledge, such as the construct of time or space, how we know that the world will be as we left it when we blink, or mathematics or statements that can be derived from reason alone. Knowledge gained from experience is called a posteriori.
I walked out the fountain, in the plaza by the Louvre. I thought of the poem, The Higher Pantheism by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Law is God, say some; no God at all, says the fool, For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool;“. Tennyson thought that the discrepancy between our perception and reality proved the existence of God.
Then I went to the Plaza of Saint Germain-des-Pres, notable for being the rendezvous of many famous philosophers and the grand Church of Saint Germain-des-Pres which contains the tomb of René Descartes. I stood respectfully in the Abbey. This was the oldest church in Paris, dating back to 542. Descartes believed the mind/soul and body were two separate entities. My mind wandered freely as my body sat.
I, then, caught the plane on El Al to Tel Aviv, arriving deep under the disguise of night. Tears pressed to my cheeks, as I stepped into the Ben-Gurion airport. I could feel my Zionism, my pride beating; I was home. I took wonder, in a place where Jews were not the minority, where the Hebrew I had learned in preparation for my bat mitzvah was plastered across the walls. It was just under an hour to make it to Jerusalem. The Israeli accent of the cab driver was wonderfully familiar to me. I was staying inside the Old Jewish Quarter, at a hotel called the Sephardic House. The cab was not allowed to drive into the Quarter, so it drove around to a back parking lot, and I dragged my suitcase up the steps into the hotel. “Toda (Thank you in Hebrew),”I thanked.
“Shalom,” the man at the front desk greeted me.
“Shalom,” I responded.
My room was modern, with ancient twists: arched doorways and a modern color palette. I pulled open the window to see Orthodox men walking down the narrow cobblestone streets.
The next morning, I walked down to the patio to discover an elegant buffet for breakfast. Yet as soon I set down my plate and turned around, it was swept up by one of the staff nearby.
I walked around the Old City all morning, watching the people who made their homes here. I saw old men bent over ancient texts, young boys with sidelocks called peyot, and a man with an articulate machine, a weaver, weaving a tallit. I got a smoothie from a man in the Muslim quarter, and admired all the various spices.
Then I walked to the Jerusalem market, called the Souq (pronounced shuk). I sampled from a selection of halvah, more halvah than I had ever seen in my life. I tasted freshly ground tahini from a thousand year old stone press and bartered for fresh fruit.
Now, this was Friday, midday. By the time I made it back to the Old City, everyone was in swift preparation for Shabbat: the shops were all closing, the tables being set. I dressed in a new white dress I bought in Paris, I made sure it fell below my knees and tucked a white shawl over my bare shoulders. I followed the procession of well-dressed Jews down to the Western Wall or the kotel, the last remaining section of the Second Temple. I had to pass through a metal detector, and on the women’s side of the partition, I made my way to the Western Wall: the most sacred place in Judaism. Throughout my time in Jerusalem, it was difficult to not think of G-d. The subject of G-d and my belief or disbelief pertaining to this divine creature is foggy at best. On a whole, I am fascinated by how humans cling to this belief of this otherworldly being, and likewise I am fascinated how such a being commands billions of people.
In the pursuit of non scientific inquiries like magic, fate and G-d, I fall back on one of my favorite realizations that we cannot prove something to be untrue unless we are certain of everything else. Which, as stated previously, we are nowhere close to. Consequently, it would be foolish for a logical person to write off the existence of the magical for we are not certain of its nonexistence. Descartes states a similar idea: never to accept a thing as true until you knew it as such without a single doubt. Now, I believe the same thing applies to the theory of G-d. I believe absolute disbelief in G-d is not wise, nor is it logical. Additionally, I do not believe that one has to choose between G-d and science. For myself, I would easily fit into the agnostic category, but being agnostic is too easy. It goes against the Jewish principles by not searching deep enough. Yet, I am not comfortable telling someone I believe in G-d, because the word G-d is saturated with connotations. I hear patriarchal, anti science, religious. It is because of my hard left, secular upbringing that word G-d seems sort of dirty. Yet, I have a deep, hidden jealousy of those who do believe, who have a beautiful, untouchable faith that guides them through dark times.
I believe G-d exists in what science can’t know and will not know. I believe that every step science advances we are one step closer to finding G-d. G-d exists in the unknowable, in magic, in miracles, in whatever we can’t explain. So we can call it: the universe, magic, miracles, fairies, jinns, G-ds & G-ddesses, prophets, inspiration, Elohim, Adonai, mother nature.
Throughout history, philosophers have struggled with doubt and questions of G-d. If G-d exists, how is there good and evil? My current answer to this, is without evil, there would be no good. We would not know how to appreciate the good around us without understanding the evil. However, this clashes with the common perception that G-d is supremely benevolent.
Honestly, I believe the guidelines we have constructed for G-d: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent create havoc. My favorite parts of the Torah is when G-d lacks perfection, when G-d makes a mistake. It is difficult to imagine or believe in a divinity so flawless. However, these qualities are what make G-d supremely set apart from us. St. Anselm said, “G-d is that being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” But, to me, this G-d is lonely, harsh and unforgiving. But this also derives from the perspective that G-d is humanlike or rather that we are created in G-d’s image, that G-d has ‘strength’, ‘opinions’, and ‘knowledge’.
From an anthropological standpoint, most sincerely, I believe our deep, primal need to believe in a G-d comes from our deepest vulnerabilities. Most simply put, our need to be cared for.
Perhaps one the most scariest and challenging moments in a creature's life is learning to leave the home and move beyond the safety of one’s parents. Today, that challenge means going to college, or a job. It means fending for ourselves: growing up. And that is pretty scary.
We created G-ds and G-ddesses when we were a nomadic people, hunched by the fire, staring up into the cool, untouchable stars, when our loneliness strangled us. We created the G-ds when we journeyed in the hot sun, bone and flesh creaking along. We created G-d to protect us. Suddenly, the stars seemed within reach. We created a G-d for the ground, wind, sky, stars. A G-d for health, for love, for mercy, for strength, for fortune.
I believe we created G-d to serve as our eternal parent, so that we never really have to leave the nest. We shape G-d into our parent by giving him/her/it a name, a gender, opinions and mistakes. In some religions, G-d is easily referred to as our father, reinforcing my theory: G-d is humanity’s go to parent and has been since the beginning. The idea of G-d has shifted with the needs of each society, but always a figure to look up to, to blame, to sacrifice to, to love, to give up your life for, to provide purpose and morality. G-d is the final comfort, when we are out and vulnerable in the world
However, my reason for why humans believe in G-d and my own belief in G-d are conflicting. I struggle between objectively observing and believing.
I press my forehead to the cool stone of the Western Wall, my palms outstretched: my mind and my heart open wide. A tenderness for the divine sweeps through me, a gratefulness to be connected, to be chosen, of these web of individuals across the world who cherish questioning, learning, storytelling. “Thank you,” I whisper. I tuck my own note into the wall, just a large bolded question mark. “G-d would understand,” I thought, laughing to myself.
I am welcomed into a circle of American women, arms around each other, singing the prayers I had heard countless times before. I sang with them, my smile unable to be wiped from my face. I felt enveloped physically and emotionally, as if I was a string in a tapestry.
After the sun begin to set, I was invited to dinner by family friends. The dinner conversation shifted from Israeli politics, to travel, to faith, to books and wrapped around again. I told them of my journey so far.
Recently, one of them had visited me, in my own home, as I attempted to offer them the same hospitality they had offered me.
The next morning, I was driven back to Tel Aviv by a Palestinian cab driver as the Jewish cab drivers were not driving on Shabbat. I felt some Jewish guilt as I took a plane on Shabbat to Moscow, it was a four hour ish flight. The Sheremetyevo International Airport was brown, and glass block of a building. The signs were all in Russian and English. I vaguely remembered the cyrillic alphabet from years ago.
“Приве́т,” I greeted the cab driver, his face tired. He smiled, “Приве́т.” He collected my purse and suitcase for the trunk.
“Ritz Carlton?” My request sounded weak. But the cabdriver just smiled again, and gunned off into heavy Moscow traffic. It was an elegant dance of motorcycles, vehicles, bikers, and pedestrians. I noticed the signs: all in swooping Russian. When we arrived in front of the Ritz Carlton, a grand, stately building centered by three stone arches, he got out of the car to procure my suitcase and my purse. I smiled broadly. “Спасибо.”
I checked in and collapsed in my hotel room.
The next morning, I became acquainted with my spacious room, especially the coffee machine. The time differences were suffocating me slowly.
I walked over to the Chocolate Restaurant (Шоколад)for lunch. Yet, when I went to pay, casually searching through my purse, I found my wallet emptied. The rubles I had exchanged yesterday missing. My heart took up a furious, marching band beat. My black express card was safely zipped in my suitcase, yet that was all the way in the hotel room along with my passport. My face flushed bright red as I realized I had no way to pay. An excruciating amount of time languished before a waitress came over to collect the check and I was empty handed.
In this time of crisis, words deserted like discharged soldiers. “I...uh,” I choked. “I can’t pay.”
The waitress tilted her head. “No pay?”
Attention from other diners drifted over to us. I longed to slink under the table. “Yes.”
I held up my empty wallet.
Her face blushed with anger. She snatched the check from me, stalking to the kitchen while angrily muttering in Russian. Several tortuous minutes passed, before a man emerged from the kitchen. His face a beet color like the borscht I had just consumed. “You can’t pay?”
I shook my head.
He growled, grabbing my wrist and pushing me towards the kitchen. “Work for your meal.”
I rubbed my wrist as I was directed towards a dishwasher, a stack of dirty dishes and scalding water awaiting me.
As the hours passed, I thought about the culprit who had stolen my wallet. The cabdriver, I thought angrily. Slowly, the anger faded as contemplation drowned me. I wondered if he was desperate, if he had children at home who were hungry, if he had reached his breaking point, if he needed the cash more than I did.
The issue of morality, and ethics has been argued about for centuries. What is right and wrong and how can we know which is which is the essential question. There are generally two schools of thought, an action is morally acceptable if the motivation or reasoning is valid or if the consequences are beneficial.
I thought of Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperatives: unconditional moral obligations. Devised under his Formula of Universal Law, the maxim, a rule or principle, is morally acceptable if you are willing to let everyone act on that maxim without exceptions. Stealing, as the cab driver had done to me, is morally unacceptable in Kant’s eyes, because you wouldn’t want everyone to be able to steal, because that would negatively affect you. Kant was a part of the deontological moral theory: the motivation for a person to complete that action, if reasoned through the Formula of Universal Law, decided whether the action was moral, not the consequences of said action. David Hume disagreed, reason cannot be a motive for an moral action, because reason is bound to your “passions”. Morality is not derived from reason, but feelings: good feelings or bad feelings.
John Stuart Mill, a notable figure of the concept of utilitarianism, would agree. He wrote “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Utilitarianism is set of moral principles that rank their moral worth on how much happiness they bring. It is in contrary to the idea that the moral worth is determined by motivation, instead moral worth is determined by the consequences. And we, as human beings, have an obligation to bring as much happiness as possible. Jeremy Bentham, a political radical as well as moral philosopher, created a principle of utilitarianism that evaluates actions on the level of happiness they bring to the greatest number of people. Happiness is defined as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain, due to the fact, that according to Bentham, human beings are primarily motivated by pain and pleasure. And so, according to Mill and Bentham, the cab driver stealing my wallet might be morally acceptable if it not only brought happiness to him, but to his family and provided them with financial relief, more so than my happiness if I had not gotten my wallet stolen.
As the day darkened, and my hands were red and worn, they sent me on my way. I hurried away as I heard yells directed towards me.
In my hotel room, I cradled my credit card, heading out for a currency machine to collect more rubles. I, then, showered away the dishwashing grime and ordered in room service.
The next day, I headed out to the Red Square. It stunned me. From the brightly colored, and patterned, magnificent St. Basil’s Cathedral, to the bright, crimson State History Museum and Lenin’s grand mausoleum. I gawked, revealing the absolute tourist I was. Next, I visited the Bolshoi Theatre, a noble building of white pillars. It reminded me of the buildings of ancient Greece. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, thought ethics were the structure on how best to achieve happiness, which depends on virtue, which Aristotle was truly obsessed with. He thought virtue was a combination of knowledge, habituation (repetition), and self-discipline: the perfect point between the abundance or scarcity of a trait, this was dependent on individual people. Each action should add to the final happiness of all human beings. Thomas Aquinas compounded on Aristotelian ethics, in addition to Christian theology and thought that final happiness humanity contributes to would only occur with God.
I took a long stroll from the Bolshoi Theatre to Gorky Park passing the Moskva River, meditating on morality. Frederich Nietzsche thought that there was no such thing as good and evil. However, he wrote, “man needs to supplement reality by an ideal world of his own creation.” Meaning, morality is a necessary, and purely human construct: a lie we must cling to in our society.
Personally, I find myself stranded on the beaches of moral relativism. William Graham Sumner, an American anthropologist, claimed, in 1906, that morality is shaped, in its entirety by the traditions, practices and customs of the culture. In my study of history, in the different places I have come across, I’ve seen shifted moral compasses from culture to culture. It is when we believe that our morality is final, we lose the ability to have empathy for people with differing moral opinions, and we are filled with blind judgement. Our culture encourages people to have strong opinions, stalwart beliefs, yet when our society shifts and evolves, we leave these groups of people behind, hanging on tightly to their moral beliefs. I think this is why we still have racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, because people are unable to shift with the times as they are preconditioned to not to.
And in this day in age, when more people are communicating than ever before, we find ourselves at a moral gridlock, interacting with people who deeply disagree with our beliefs online. We become obsessed with organizing ourselves into us and them. Our moral compass turned just so, so that they are the bad guys and we are the good ones. Then, the new information we take in, the information we trust, is confirms our own beliefs: confirmation bias. Fake news has been a common term in our recent modern vernacular, yet I believe fake is the wrong word. Is it fake if people believe it? Are fake and the truth antonyms? There has been an epidemic of uneven news: contradicting facts, contradicting truth. We reach an impasse, because through the internet, the truth has become a product of our preset beliefs, not as it should, our beliefs a product of the truth.
I eat dinner at Expedition, a fine dining establishment. I order their delicacies: stroganina, thinly sliced, frozen, raw fish and indigirka salad.
Then catch a ride back to my hotel. My last night in my quest for meaning hung around me. I fell asleep early.
I settled into my seat on the plane, reclining in preparation for the long flight home. My thoughts shifted and tumbled, as I began to process my whirlwind trip. I procured the card, that started me on this journey, this odyssey, in the first place. What is the meaning of life it asked. And I finally think I came to a conclusion.
As far as we know, we are the only living beings who know we’re going to die, and thus we are the only ones compelled to give meaning to the time we have, and we are the only ones that care. The meaning of life is a question purely and distinctly human. And the answer lives in the question itself.
Here we are, given a messy, inconsistent and gloriously confusing Earth. And as a result we have dutifully named, ordered and boxed each corner of it. We have put living things into kingdoms, families and species. We have studied the behavioral habits of things we could not began to communicate with. We have created formulas to suit the incalculable. We have counted and named the stars. We have tried to wrap our heads around the vastness of the universe. We explained things we cannot touch and can only pretend to understand.
I think it is our search for meaning, for knowledge, our endless desire to organize the world, to question, to explore that gives life meaning: our ability to wonder. Plato wrote, “Wonder is the feeling of the philosopher and philosophy begins in wonder.” And wonder begins in life.