Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why does God Hate Me?

That's the question I was asked today by a member of the local library's chess club. He is a despondent fellow, single, overweight and unkempt. On our way out of the library, he seemed quite serious when he posed the question, adding "why have so many innocent Jews died at the Holocaust? It wasn't rhetorical; he pinned me and demanded and answer. I said "maybe they weren't so innocent; and maybe God has a long-term plan that we cannot see as of yet".

It's a rather succinct and seemingly straightforward answer but it's quite profound:

1) When we witness calamity befalling some people and not others, we immediately ask the question "why were they singled out?" However, what we consistently neglect to take into account is that life brims with challenges and we are "supposed" to be able to meet them wisely and bravely. Natural Selection, we know, schedules such calamitous events at sporadic intervals and we are given plenty of time to prepare for such eventualities. In fact, living in a modern civilization, as we currently do, we have an abundance of time at our disposal for engaging in all kinds of speculative activities and long-term highly-sophisticated projects.

One way of gauging the amount of available resources for such seemingly "discretionary" pursuits is by looking at the American average income. The average family middle-class family spends only a small fraction of their income on essentials: food, clothing and shelter. Keep in mind that mortgage payments are NOT essential for the satisfaction of the basic need for housing. If renting were not available, that would have been true. As it is, however, purchasing a home is more than securing a roof over one's head: it's an investment, it's the acquisition of equity ("capital") and is thus not an essential condition for survival.

An average middle-class family could, in theory rent a simple two-bedroom apartment somewhere within commuting distance of their job and spend as little as one thousand dollars per month for housing, gas and electric. Food would require a mere two hundred dollars per month expenditure, if the family scrimped at the supermarket. And clothing would be the cheapest of all, demanding as little as several hundreds dollars per year if the family economized its spending in an average family of four. Incredibly, such a lifestyle could be maintained quite consistently through economic boom periods and recessions, and political power shifts between the major parties. In the meantime, both parents could hold down jobs paying on average a minimum of fifty grand for a combined income of one hundred thousand dollars per year. Where is the eighty thousand dollars of disposable income being diverted?

* Capital investments. That is, the family wants to generate more money so that it may serve as a cushion for "security".
* Brand name purchases. The family desires not just any piece of clothing or living in just any neighborhood. They choose the kinds of clothing and live in the kind of neighborhoods that project them in the best possible light to society at large. They need to acquire that elusive, all-too-expensive "image" of success, in addition to acquiring success in actuality.
* Travel, adventure, and entertainment. The family loves to explore other modes of living and cultural practices to see whether those can be adopted and serve to facilitate or enhance their living conditions.

And with all this hubbub of spending, there is still a nice chunk of grub left over. What's even more disposable is the incredibly vast amounts of time available to the family. They engage in hobbies, religious practices, trifle with friends and family and watch TV. It's all discretionary. The question is: are people choosing to ration their spare time and resources wisely or are they being careless? If you think about it carefully, you'll discover that education, for instance, could take one very far. With a proper education, one can hope to anticipate natural disasters, shifts int he economy and the like. How much spare time do people devote for education? Very little! Why, then, do they cry foul when Hurricane Katrina does at long last strike of when Berney Madoff's Ponzi scheme does at long last crumble to pieces? No doubt, nature should be punished and Madoff should rot in prison. But, is that going to get your house renovated or your investment money back? I don't think so! Ultimately, it's not useful to blame external factors for one's shortcomings. Introspection serves the purpose much better, such as asking oneself: was I asleep at the wheel? Was I sleepwalking through life? Why wasn't I scrutinizing the mechanisms Madoff used to generate such high returns on investment and then discovered that it's all a hoax and bound to blow up in short order?

We have plenty of time and resources available to us to guard against "unforeseen" eventualities. This is, in fact, "the" defining distinction between us and most other members of the animal kingdom. We have intelligence and can employ it to predict the future and thus provide for necessary adaptations to it. It is thus inexcusable to moan and groan about how God has malignantly singled one out from the rest. Retuning to the aforementioned Holocaust question: why did God allow the Holocaust to happen?, I'd like to underscore how callous those victims were.

* Nazi Germany came to power in 1933. The Germans never concealed their profound hatred of Jews or their desire to generate lebensraum for Germany by conquering weak, "inferior", adjacent territories, Poland being on the short list.
* The Holocaust Jews failed to aggressively seek emigration from countries within German occupation borders, or likely to fall under German hands.
* They naively refused to believe continual reports of the horror and atrocities of the Nazi regime, even after those acts were in full swing.
* They focused excessively on protecting their properties, to the point of neglecting the vital task of looking out for their very survival. Many of the Holocaust victims had numerous chances on their path to Auschwitz to buy their freedom. As they neared their doomed destination, those opportunities became harder and harder to come by. In the end, all the wealth they preserved so tenaciously was seized by the very party they hated the most: the German Nazi government.

Can you see here a string of gross misjudgements on the victims' part? Can you see here how a better education and a more lucid vision towards reality --as opposed to wishful thinking-- could have very reasonably saved their lives? Don't blame God! You had a minimum of six years to prepare for the Nazi regime and its violent program. What have you been doing? Where was all your disposable time and money spent?

2) Now let me elaborate on the second part of my answer: the long-term vision of God. It's amazing how the more ignorant people are, the more they insist that they know everything and the more educated they are, the more they realize that they are merely studying the tip of the iceberg. There's also another remarkable quality inherent in intelligent study and analysis of nature: insistence on seeing the big picture, knowing that a stumble and fall isn't necessarily bad and striking gold isn't necessarily good. If the person who falls survives and thus develops future "immunity" against falls, as nature typically does, and if the person who strikes gold becomes callous and indifferent to the need of hard work for survival and thus neglects to take appropriate steps to ensure long-term survival, then who is the real loser here and who is the winner?

Even though we can't see it, the collective benefit of Jews as an ethnic group, may have actually been enhanced by eliminating the weeds, members of the group who were weak and unworthy of survival. Also, the Holocaust may have had a strong beneficial impact on the future religious and cultural direction the Jewish movement has taken and will continue to take. Who is to say: now is the time to release the verdict on whether the Holocaust is "justifiable"? Perhaps we wait a little longer! Perhaps our vision will clear up as we proceed with history and we recede from the arena of this cataclysmic event; as we become less emotionally attached to the Holocaust.

If serial murderers are kept for decades on death row, just to make sure that they're absolutely guilty without a shadow of doubt, can't we grant God the same privilege of the "benefit of the doubt"? More often than not, we will ourselves be able to prove him innocent if we do our homework properly.