A couple of days ago I was watching my old dog sleeping on his bed. In canine years, Buster must be well over a hundred. Blind and mostly deaf, he is no longer able to traverse the stairs and spends of most his time sleeping in one room – his world getting smaller and smaller. But he can still sense when I come home and greets me, tail wagging.
I know that Buster doesn’t have much time left but, as I watched him sleep I realized that, other than his discomforts and limitations, he doesn’t seem very anxious about shuffling off his mortal coil. Humans, however, are very aware they are going to die. If we’re honest with ourselves it is a fact that frightens us all.
But where does our fear of death come from? In Eastern Christian theology, the result of Original Sin is Death. And that sin is hereditary – every human being who’s ever lived has been afflicted with its curse. But when you read about the story of Adam and Eve, something interesting is going on. God tells the primordial couple they can eat of every fruit in the Garden – just not the apple from Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then why did God put it there in the first place?
If my dining room table is piled high with wholesome foods and one cupcake, if I tell my daughter she can eat everything but the cupcake – guess what? The moment my back is turned she’s going to eat the cupcake. And my wife is going to ask me why I didn’t hide the cupcake! So why didn’t God hide that tree? Why did he tickle Adam and Eve’s interest in forbidden fruit? Sure, the Serpent didn’t help matters but, in the end, I suspect God wanted Adam and Eve to eat that apple.
That sounds kind of inflammatory but, unless you take the Bible literally, you understand that Garden of Eden is just a story. A story written by people who were trying to explain the human condition as best they could in the time in which they lived. And they were wrestling with the same questions that bedevil us today. Why is there suffering and death? Why do we fear the end of life? Perhaps the answer lies in the evolution of consciousness.
If you buy what Darwin was selling, human beings evolved from lower life forms. As mutations occurred in our mammalian ancestors, any change that gave them a survival advantage got passed on. The seed of consciousness were probably also a mutation that, over time, blossomed into self-awareness. Now. there are many theories as to why this happened. Alien intervention ala Kubrick’s monolith? Or did our earliest ancestors munch on psychedelic plants that could’ve kick-started human consciousness? Maybe the Apple of Eden was just a really awesome shroom.
But we eventually discovered fire and began cooking our food – which helped release more of its nutrients and helped our brains get bigger and more complex. Neurons started linking up and, eventually, after a long period of time, humankind became self-aware. This might not have happened uniformly or in the same way for everybody. There’s a rather far out theory that posits early man’s proto-consciousness might have manifested itself as command hallucinations. “I did this because the gods told me to!” If true, that meant at some point, like homo sapiens living alongside Neanderthals, there were humans with modern subjective consciousness’s living with people who were always hearing voices in their heads. That must’ve been fun but, eventually, what we have today won out.
However it happened, human consciousness and the subsequent arrival of self-awareness gave humanity a massive survival advantage. We began to harness nature to our ends, developed language, art and science and our numbers exploded. But there was a dark side to cogito ergo sum. Unlike lower life forms our newly honed minds began to realize our days were finite. We began to feel anxiety about death – maybe right around the time humans started burying their dead. Consciousness is a two-edged sword. Without it we never would have emerged from our caves and travelled to the Moon. But it also caused us to fear Death and, the desire to hide from or assuage that fear, brought very manner of suffering into the world. We cannot have the good stuff without the bad. Suffering, or more precisely, existential suffering, is the result of self-awareness. Consciousness is a blessing and a curse – it holds us up and pulls us down.
In Greek, the word for sin is hamartia – meaning “failure” or to “miss the mark.” We fall short or rather, do not become who we are truly capable of being. Some philosophers would call this a failure to be authentic. Wrapped up in our fears and everyday concerns, we “harden our hearts,” spiritually ossify and close ourselves off from what is truly possible. And since sin is not just private but communal we also prevent other people from becoming authentic as well or “lead them into sin.” We have all hurt people and held them down. When we think of Death we are forced to reflect on our failures as human beings. No wonder we try narcotizing ourselves with booze, sex, drugs, delusional thinking, power and material things. Who wants to think about that kind of stuff? That causes us to suffer and watch as all our escapist stratagems fail.
There’s a great story about a rabbi who lived long ago. Old and wise, when he finally was staring death in the face, his disciples noticed he was uncharacteristically apprehensive and afraid. “Rabbi Moshe!” they said. “You are and a great and learned rabbi. Why are you afraid?’ “Because” the rabbi said, “I’m afraid I never truly became Moshe.” Death makes failures of us all.
Now I’m back watching Buster sleep. Unlike me, he has never missed the mark. He has always been the fullness of who he was meant to be –a dog. He does not fear death and therefore is incapable of sin. There’s a wonderful purity in that and, perhaps, a glimpse of Original Innocence. But we left the Garden of Eden a long time ago. Not because we were “cast out” but maybe, like all good parents, the development of consciousness was God’s way of nudging us out of the nest. And our explanations for all that followed are the imperfect jabbering of minds trapped within a constrained existence. But the echo of Paradise, like the memory of being cradled in out mother’s arms, remains with us still.
Humankind is not a finished product. Our consciousness, even though it has released much darkness, is still evolving. Throughout history, philosophers and prophets have arisen to tell us everything is not as it seems – that we are called to be something more. Perhaps they intuited or caught a glimpse of where we’re headed. And I don’t think it’s an accident that most of the world’s religions place such heavy emphasis on helping your neighbor, humility, and showing mercy and compassion. In short, they all talk about love. Perhaps love will be evolution’s Omega Point – a point where our consciousness’s will no longer fear death and we will be freed from its sting. Maybe “God” knew that we had to leave Paradise so we could return to it fully. Then, as Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
Getting up from my computer, I go into the kitchen and slice up Buster’s favorite treat – apples. They are good for him. Maybe biting into that Apple was good for us too.