The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Thursday, January 24, 2013
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

If you go on Bing or or . . . you know, that web site that starts with the “G” . . . and search on “the cause of desire”, you can find some interesting perspectives from various points of view, including consumerism and, of course, love and sex. But what about “the desire for a cause”? I couldn’t find anything about that.

And yet, many and perhaps most humans hold a desire to be part of a cause of one sort or another. Being part of a “cause” usually creates association and community, an affiliation with others of like mind. However, for a “cause” to happen, that “like mind” first has to happen. Causes are usually about ideas and beliefs. They mix communal experience with some ideology, an ideology that in some fashion challenges something about the world as it is today. The desire and cause for change might be something as momentous as the downfall of western civilization, or as benign as a fundraising effort to buy more books for school children in impoverished areas.

Actually, though, sometimes maintaining or defending the status quo is enough of a cause. Conservative causes are still legitimate causes (unless you watch MSNBC all the time). A cause can be defined as the contrast to an undesired change. A young man may volunteer to fight in an army that is trying to drive off another army that has invaded his homeland — he certainly feels as though he is part of a cause. Or people may band together to preserve an historic building or neighborhood against the changes planned by city fathers and profit-motivated real estate developers. Sometimes the status quo IS the cause, especially against a counter-cause that seeks to change things (arguably for the worse, relative to the status-quo defenders).

Whether radical or conservative, it is pretty obvious that human beings are suckers for causes. There is a synergistic force behind most causes; the whole experience of having a cause is definitely more than the sum of the parts. Is this good or bad? As always with human affairs, the truth is a mixed bag. We do seem to have a “desire” for cause independent of the pros or cons of the particular cause, and exceeding the general desire to belong to a social group of some sort. The Buddhists say that desire is the cause of suffering. So, the desire for a cause, the desire for inspiration, the desire for like-minded companionship, must also involve suffering.

And that is certainly the case. There are many stories of people who become disheartened by their chosen causes. It is the rare individual who sticks with one cause “to the end” (perhaps Mother Theresa). The ideology may be just fine, but when imperfect people get together to find ways to actualize a cause in the real world, there has to be some level of confusion and miscommunication, along with plenty of compromise and dilution. And the human dark side is never far away; too many people get disheartened but do not abandon their causes, instead finding ways to exploit it for their own immediate purposes (money and power and ego). That is not terribly uncommon in religious and spiritual causes! I guess that the bigger the up-front importance and promise is to a person who joins a cause (as with the cause of spiritual perfection), the bigger the temptation is for the dark side to take over once the realities of human imperfection seep their way in.

I’ve heard it said that men, especially boys and young men, are more attracted to causes than women. I’m not sure if that is true. Certainly there are many examples throughout history of women who strongly supported causes and built their lives around them. There are the historical examples like Joan of Arc and Queen Victoria and Catherine the Great and Florence Nightengale, and thousands of other examples including female supporters of slavery abolition, the 19th century suffragettes, union organizers of the early 20th century, and social justice and feminist leaders today like Bella Abzug and Marion Edelman Wright and Aung San Suu Kyi.

But I can say that as a boy, I myself felt a strong desire for a cause, the wanting to be part of something bigger and more important than myself. Family and friends were not enough; I needed something with a bigger idea behind it. Is this part of the genetic tendencies of boys versus girls?

Or are boys encouraged by society to “be a part of something bigger”, because boys with a cause fit a certain social purpose; i.e., the need for strong young bodies with unquestioning minds to carry out the latest war scheme that the old men of a nation have hatched. Could there have been as much war in our world if 17 and 18 year olders were more cynical about offering up their lives to back the latest propaganda put forth by their worldly, elderly leaders? What if boys were more inherently skeptical and more immune to the cry of defending democracy, defending the revolution, defending the religion, defending the father land, defending the vision of the great dear leader?

Oh, speaking about myself — you might ask, how did I do with my causes from youth? How much disappointment did I experience, how far did I go down the road with them? When I was 13, I decided I wanted to be a railroad man, because railroads seemed like a good thing. They were threatened, and saving them seemed like a good cause (to a 13 year old geek, anyway). I was fascinated by the local railroads given that they were part of a much bigger system. Being a railroad man seemed like a good opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself.

But then I started working for a railroad while in college, and yes, I burned out. The great cause was found to be tainted, dominated by apathy, crudeness, stupidity, missed opportunity, and other forms of malaise. So I tried to find other causes. (And yet . . . looking back . . . there is something fundamental about trains and railroads that still “seems right”.)

In the years that followed, I considered various causes, and even got involved with a small handful during my adult years. For a while I was enthralled with national-level politics; but I never took the plunge into it. Ditto for high-level education and academia. At some point I felt the call of religious social justice causes, and did had some involvements with urban development agencies led by religious leaders. But as with the railroad dream, eventually I was disheartened. As I was with religions in general. Oh, and I fell in love with various women and was married for a time; for a season, marriage seemed like a noble cause too. But alas, that season had its autumn and eventual winter.

And so today, I guess that I’m a man, an almost-old man, without a cause. And yet, some basics still keep me going; having friends, helping others when I can, doing a good job at work when able, getting some things done . . . life still seems like getting up in the morning for. I guess that the cause of staying alive still seems like a worthwhile cause to me — despite the suffering that is always part of the deal. Maybe that’s what all the other causes eventually boil down to. (Maybe . . . )

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:58 pm      

  1. Jim, Surprising, isn’t it? How for most people one has to be young to have a “Cause” – with a capital “C”. That is, a Cause that involves the world or society or making some “bigger” contribution to a large number of people. As one matures, develops, and grows older (hopefully, these 3 will be a process of maturation in the person), he/she begins to see that sometimes the best “cause” is living a good life.

    Another thought: It amazes me that so many people have material causes in their lives. Back in the 1970s I heard a woman standing in a group in which I was waiting say to her companion, “My husband and I have decided together that our ‘thing’ will be ‘things’ “. I have thought about her now and then over the years and wondered how they’ve got on with that as a cause.

    Until a surprisingly short time ago (historically), say the 1920s, for most women their “cause” most of the time was to marry and have children. Women who did neither of these things and in that particular order (woe to the woman who reversed the order or was unwed when she had a child), really had no other choice in life. It wasn’t until the 1920s when women began to think they might take on other causes than marriage and child bearing.

    I would say (and I think you have said it in your way here) that everybody has a cause of some kind in his/her life; some are better than others. As one grows older one’s causes become less “tangible” (is that the right word?) and more personal and intangible; yet for that very reason more important. I need to add: I would doubt that you are “today . . . an almost-old man, without a cause”. I would say your causes are more mature and developed than they were when you were a teenager. Isn’t it Martha Stewart who would say this? “And that’s a good thing.” MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 25, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

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