Unlike almost any other time in recent history we are facing a host of mind-boggling and gut-wrenching dilemmas. Every day forces some impossible collective or individual action, some choice between equally horrific consequences no matter what action we take.
- Someone has to decide whether or not to treat an Ebola patient; and then someone has to decide which treatment to give, knowing in advance that some treatments are more effective than others, knowing that in some cases placebos will be administered to test the efficacy of a certain drug for research reasons, not to cure this patient right now, or knowing that one person’s life is considered to be more important than another life depending on race, gender, profession, national origin, religion or location of the hospital where treatment occurs.
- Someone has to decide whether a suspect is armed or not, whether the apparent weapon is real or not, whether harm is intended or not, whether an individual “belongs” in a particular neighborhood or not, whether the punishment fits the crime or not.
- Someone has to decide whether the fundamental issue is free speech or the rise of an Islamic state or both, whether once and currently hated Jews are now allies, whether once and currently hated Arabs are now allies or enemies, who the last immigrant should be, and decide whether any country should become or remain culturally homogeneous.
- Someone has to decide whether fracking is good or bad for a neighborhood, nation, industry, or economy, and whether the benefit of this methodology outweighs its human and environmental cost in the short and/or long term.
- Someone has to decide which submerging coastlines will be shored up and repurposed, and which islands and cultures will be abandoned as a result of sea level rise.
- Someone has to decide which is more important – health, safety, freedom of speech, a strong economy, a secure nation – and only one can be chosen, even if its importance implies the sacrifice of all other desirable goals.
- Someone has to decide the cost or benefit of the separation of church and state.
- Someone has to decide the appropriate role of censorship, if any.
- Someone has to decide whether divorce, abortion, or homosexuality automatically excludes one from the possibility of heaven.
- Someone has to decide whether or not to report misconduct in the workplace and in the family, even if reporting inappropriate behavior means subsequent loss of livelihood and excommunication from most or all members of the family.
- Someone has to decide whether the police and the military in general are protectors or abusers, criminals or victims, or, as is often the case, both. Furthermore, someone has to decide what defines misconduct and whether there should be consequences for a range of police or military actions.
- Someone has to decide whether Islam and Christianity are religions, cultures, governments, races, political weapons or geographical markers, and whether either religion comes with the divine right to rule and to appropriate land. There are many other examples and many other religions to consider as well.
- Someone has to decide which water sources must become polluted and which animals, including human beings, must become extinct in the service of progress and economic development.
- Someone has to decide which countries deserve or require intervention and why: Syria, Rwanda, Serbia, Croatia, Haiti, Algeria, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan, Myanmar, China, Japan, North and South Korea, Libya, Israel, Palestine, France, Germany, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Greece, Spain and many more including the US, UK, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Vanuatu, Mexico and Argentina.
No matter what companies or cultures hold as official policy or convention, it is ultimately individuals in the line of life or duty who must decide, who must act in the moment in the face of dilemma. Eventually individuals are forced to make a choice, even if any choice is horrific. Professor Egon Bittner, himself a Holocaust survivor whose various encounters with concentration camp guards during WWII determined his fate, taught me this several decades ago: he taught me the importance of individual decision making and action-on-the-go, no matter how elaborate the organizational structure might seem.
I have been mulling over the nature of dilemma quite a bit lately, and have come to some tentative conclusions as to why we are placed squarely on the horns of one dilemma or the other, and in these times multiple intense dilemmas all at once. Sometimes the pressure feels relentless and may not let up until we pay attention to the indicators that new ways of thinking and being now appear on the horizon, shimmering right before our eyes if we would only put on or take off our protective lenses.
Here is part of what I have concluded personally so far (assume and imagine here a long list of disclaimers!):
- Major events, especially those involving horror, show us our clear, as well as our conflicting ideas and beliefs in excruciatingly high definition.
- In light of current events, any conflicting beliefs and ideas present us with a dilemma: we are forced to choose and to act when all potential choices would be unacceptable and horrific. Doing nothing overt when faced with natural disaster or mass murder, for example, is a choice and can be called an action.
- The point of dilemma is to force action and to provide contrast. Action, in cooperation with certain intensities of emotion and belief, creates our experience of physical reality.
- The point of action in my view is ultimately to offer service, and I have a hunch the service is usually intended to be more to others than to self. I hold a deep-seated belief in human nature and intention as fundamentally good, even when we mess up royally.
- There is always some element of sacrifice and loss involved in action that is generated by an attempt to resolve the intense pressure of facing dilemma, and the loss is most often a precious one.
- The point of service is to show love: not only in the usual positive feel-good cuddly ways, but also through horror, murder and suicide as well: love of God, country, family, land, way of life by any means necessary and at all cost.
- The point of love is to allow and show the infinite and ever-expanding possibilities for concrete expression in a material world, as well as invisible qualities of consciousness and anticipated fulfillment, however they eventually get expressed.
- If it were not for free will and the possibility of horror we would not be prompted to choose, to discern, to serve, and ultimately to love. Period. We might not be motivated sufficiently to act if not faced with such enormous intensity. And without action, creation and creativity end. We would quite literally cease to be. The sacrifice of permitting the experience of horror may be the greatest love of all, especially when somewhere we hold the knowledge that horror is only one choice and never the only choice.
- Without the intense emotion of facing dilemma, many worlds would remain ephemeral holograms of what is possible but less than fully experienced in the three-dimensional realm.
Fortunately or unfortunately for us as conscious beings, horror intensifies emotion, and it is this intensity that permits the creation of new worlds through forced choice. How else to jump track? How else to stop one thread, one trend, one type of society and supplant it with another? How else to move through and past inertia?
Thanks to horror, and it is now all around us, I believe that we are quite literally on the verge of creating a new world. Some of these efforts and some of this emotion will only create more of the same horror. But some of this emotion will create breakout ideas and breakthrough worlds!
Right now it feels to me that we are looking at a tray of burnt cookies when we look at some aspects of our contemporary world: baked with good intention, originally meant to nourish, but made using unhealthy ingredients and way overdone. Soon, however, after perhaps many more instances of trial and error, we will get the recipe right: the perfect balance of social order and individual freedom. We will surprise ourselves with a completely new, or substantially modified recipe, a delicious morsel that quite literally all are free to enjoy – or not, by the way! Some people simply hate cookies and they are free to continue to hate them, whether or not the recipe has been substantially improved. After all, we will continue to need free will and the underlying expression of love that comes from facing dilemma.
The good news is identical to the bad news: we will continue our quest to exist, thank goodness. And we will continue to be forced to action, even in the face of seemingly impossible dilemmas. Which cookies will you bake today?