Life and Death, Sunshine and Rain: Accept one, Accept the Other

This morning I came across the lovely Buddha Doodles illustration with the Khalil Gibran quote: “If I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.” It’s a wonderful line to think about. For what exactly does it mean? In what sense must accepting the one mean accepting the other?

I am aware of at least one other explicit version of the idea, namely, in the Daoist text the Zhuangzi, though I imagine it is surely found in some form in Buddhist texts, as well:

Suddenly Zilai fell ill. Gasping and wheezing, on the verge of keeling over, he was surrounded by his weeping family. Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, “Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation-Transformation! What will it make you become; where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse’s liver? Or perhaps an insect’s arm?”
Zilai said, “A child obeys his parents wherever they may send him—north, south, east, or west. Now, yin and yang are much more to a man than his parents. If they send me to my death and I disobey them, that would make me a traitor—what fault would it be of theirs? The Great Clump burdens meet with a physical form, labors me with life, eases me with old age, and rest me with death. Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good. (Emphasis mine. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Trans. Ziporyn, 45-46.)

While Gibran may not be saying exactly the same thing that Zilai is with his, “Hence it is precisely because I regard my life as good that I regard my death as good,” it is clear that something similar is supposed to be going on.

But why would accepting one thing entail having to accept another? One obvious kind of case would perhaps be Hesperus and Phosphorus, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, both of which are Venus: “If you accept the beauty Hesperus, then you must accept the beauty of Phosphorus.” But even that could be challenged. Perhaps Hesperus is the more beautiful because of the context of the evening, or vice versa.

Before offering a kind of defense of the sentiment expressed by Gibran and the similar one found in the Zhuangzi, I want to consider two objections that I can imagine someone from Western, namely Anglo-American, philosophy making to the idea.

The basic idea found in the above quote seems to be something like this: we go wrong in praising one thing, for example, sunshine or life, and disparaging another thing, lightning or death, because they actually are not separate, they form a whole, one depending upon the other.

Perhaps one way to understand this whole that they form is through the causal connections between them. Along these lines, one way to challenge the idea that accepting the one means accepting the other, would be to invoke Hume’s challenge to the idea that cause and effect are necessarily connected. There is his argument that all we ever experience, all we ever have an impression of, is one thing following another: the thunder and lightning follow upon the storm created by the evaporation of water into clouds by the sun. And there is his other argument that there is no necessary connection between cause and effect, i.e., they are separable, because we can imagine a cause happening and the world ceasing to exist before the usually associated effect can occur. Thus, while sun and warmth may be causally connected to thunder and lightning, they do not really form an indissoluble whole; thus, one can accept the one without accepting the other. Before responding to this Humean challenge, let’s consider another.

The act of acceptance is an interesting one. We might fruitfully view it as lying somewhere between believing and intending, or perhaps instead as consisting of aspects of both. Beliefs are often/usually not susceptible to the will. While we may, as Pascal suggests, put ourselves in situations that may be conducive to certain kinds of belief formation, e.g., hanging out with Christians in order to believe in God, and while we may in some sense be “able” to “refuse” to believe some things because they’re just too difficult, if we apprehend things as being thus and so, it is hard for us not to believe that they are thus and so. Similarly, there is an aspect of acceptance that is not responsible to the will. Sometimes, for example, we have just been too hurt to accept an apology. We may even want to be able to accept it, but we simply can’t.

On the other hand, there is an aspect of acceptance that is akin to intention. That is, we may accept that something is the case in the sense of apprehending things are thus and so while at the same time choosing not to accept, refusing to endorse or give our consent to the fact, that they are thus and so. That is, one intends to do, or actually does, something about that which one does not accept: “I cannot accept that Trump is the president of the United States!”—This intention is a choice, an intentional act. Importantly, I do not think that these are two distinct senses of acceptance. The latter sense of endorsement presupposes the former sense of belief. One can believe and either endorse or not, but one cannot endorse or not without belief.

Making explicit this connection between acceptance and intention opens the door to connecting our question concerning acceptance to the issues surrounding what is called the doctrine of double effect. In brief the idea is this: any given action may have multiple effects, not all of which are good. So, for example, let’s say that you think abortion at any time, under any circumstances, is wrong. And let’s say that a pregnant woman has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Imagine that the only way to save her is to perform an operation that will have the effect of aborting the baby, while removing the cancer. Going back to Aquinas, we find the claim that while the operation will have two effects, one good and one bad, the operation is permissible as long as it is performed with the intention of producing the good effect. This is the case even though everyone knows that the bad effect is a necessary concomitant.

If the doctrine is right, and there are various forms of the doctrine and I take it they are all controversial, then you can intend one action and intend only one of its effects, even though you know it will have more than that one of fact, not all of them desirable. Thus, given our different senses of “accept,” perhaps we can say I accept, in the sense of believe, that life and death form a whole, but while I accept, in the sense of endorse, the life aspect, I do not accept, in the sense of endorse, the death aspect.

Let’s now look at at least one possible way to respond to the above objections (—objections that are somewhat amusing to put together, as one comes from Hume and the other from what is essentially Catholic doctrine). We might say that both objections treat our issue of acceptance as a kind of logical problem rooted in a misapprehension of the facts. That is, from Hume we have a strong assertion that sunshine/warmth and thunder/lightning, on the one hand, and life and death, on the other, are as a matter of fact separate because separable. From the doctrine of double effect, we learn that not only are they in fact separable, one can logically accept (endorse) the one and not accept (endorse) the other. Hence, it is logically mistaken that in accepting the one, one must accept the other.

One response to this is to say, “Sure. That’s all certainly correct as far as it goes. But it misses the point.” That is, the point that we are to take away from Gibran and the Zhuangzi is not that we make some sort of logical error by accepting the one and not accepting the other. It is not that they claim that if you accept the sun and reject the rain you are akin to someone who accepts that they are drinking water but rejects that they are drinking H2O.

Of course, factually life and death are not like the Morning Star and the Evening Star, i.e., both Venus, i.e., numerically identical. And, of course, one can logically affirm the one and reject the other. The point is, rather, that if one properly understands their nature, then one would see that life and death, sun and rain, are intimate in ways that a life lived affirming only the one is a life misunderstood.

Even though life and death are not numerically identical in the way that the Evening Star and the Morning Star are, we might think of them as non-dual in a variety ways. First, in order for me to live this life on this planet in a way that resembles something like the life I know and love, the generations that came before needed to live their lives, do their thing, and then get out of the way. That is, there are only so many resources available, only so many people that the Earth can sustain. And, so, my life that I so readily affirm is built upon both the life and death of countless others, just as future lives will be built upon both my life and my death. Second, we might consider the Zen claim that each moment is birth and death. Buddhism, Zen, denies that persons are substance-like things that unproblematically persist through time, maintaining their separate identity. Rather, Zen emphasizes the transitory nature of existence in time—for Dōgen, even, existence simply is time. Nothing persists moment to moment; in this sense, each moment is simultaneously birth and death, though again, not exactly in the way that the Evening Star is the Morning Star. And, thus, in order to live through any experience, a “person” lives and dies countless times; hence, life is a constant repetition of birth-and-death. Life is change, a series of gains and losses. We cannot experience gains without loss, and vice versa. If we except the one, we should accept the other. When you see the role that death plays in making life possible, it does not make any sense to accept the one and reject the other.

Perhaps the following personal example is illustrative of the phenomenon in question. My ex-wife, Jennie, and I had a very up-and-down relationship. Things were up when we are able to go hiking and otherwise exploring nature together, talking about life, death, and God, for example. But the times in which we could do those things were interspersed with longer periods of Jennie’s physical and mental illnesses, the latter of which included severe depression. The thing is that part of what made the good periods so good was the intensity with which Jennie engaged the outdoors and the topics of our conversations, namely, nature and God. That intensity is reflected in her poetry, which is itself often about nature and God.

I could have been better in responding to her pain, but even at my best I’m not sure that I was the right person to engage her mental and physical illnesses. In the end, we separated and then divorced, and approximately a year later Jennie killed herself. Even before her death I had realized that as much as I hated her illnesses, she wouldn’t be the person she was when things were good if not for them. I realized that it just did not make sense to hate the one and love the other.

But perhaps this is not satisfactory. Can I not, after all, accept that generations before me had to die to make room for me while at the same time lamenting the necessity of their deaths? Can I not lament that they had dreams that went unfulfilled, etc., all while realizing that I would not be here if they had not? Can I not acknowledge the necessity of change, a kind of continual birth and death, while still lamenting that there will one day be some final death, the cessation of that stream of birth-and-death that was me? Finally, can I not affirm the good times that I had with Jennie while lamenting the bad times, all while accepting that the good was what it was only because of the bad?

This is hard, at least for me (and I don’t mean because of grief). That is, on the one hand, I think I can see, in the way that the doctrine of double effects tells us, that there is a sense in which it makes sense to accept the one but not the other. But, at the same time, and on the other hand, I think I can see that since the one is what it is only because of the other, there is a sense in which it does not make sense to accept the one but not the other.

Here is one final consideration. Perhaps the above attempts to defend Gibran and the Zhuangzi are too ontological, i.e., having to do with the nature of the things themselves. What if we considered them from the standpoint of experience? Consider one of my favorite passages from Nietzsche:

The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by “distress,” the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed–all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks, and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites. It never occurs to them that, to put it mystically, the path to one’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell. No, the “religion of pity” (or “the heart”) commands them to help, and they believe that they have helped most when they have helped most quickly.
If you, who adhere to this religion, have the same attitude toward yourselves that you have toward your fellow men; if you refuse to let your own suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that besides your religion of pity you also harbor another religion in your heart that is perhaps the mother of the religion of pity: the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together. (The Gay Science, §338.)

Consider a case where everything is exactly the same color down to all the various ways that something can ordinarily vary and yet still be the same color. While such a case is logically possible in terms of its existence, such a uniformity would presumably have certain, pronounced effects on our experience, making certain things no longer possible or at least not as likely. We would not presumably have a need to talk about color, much less redness. Such a need presumably only comes about due to the possibility of difference. We might generalize that any uniformity of experience has a dampening effect on what exactly is experienced, as well as its quality. Thus, as Nietzsche points out, it is quite possible to imagine a situation where one only experiences pleasure, but without the contrast class of pain, such pleasures can never be “voluptuous.” Again, the point is that while the one can exist without the other, and thus one can imagine accepting one but not the other, to have one without the other, is to fail to really have the one, at least in all of its possible glory.

Is that right? I mean, is it not possible to experience voluptuous pleasures without having the contrast class of pain? Perhaps it is possible so long as the degree of one’s pleasures varies. So, while a piece of pizza tastes pretty good, it’s the fact that it’s not as good as an orgasm that makes possible the voluptuousness of the orgasm.

Perhaps. But it is not clear to me that having made the shift from ontology to experience adds anything new to our discussion. We went from saying that life is what it is only because of death to saying that the experience of voluptuous pleasure is what it is only because of the experience of pain or lesser pleasures. In both cases, the idea is that some “thing,” X, is what it is only because some other “thing,” Y, is what it is. And, so, I feel that I’m back where I was before: That is, on the one hand, I think I can see, in the way that the doctrine of double effects tells us, that there is a sense in which it makes sense to accept life but not death. But, at the same time, and on the other hand, I think I can see that since life is what it is only because of death, there is a sense in which it does not make sense to accept life but not death. And it may be me but the latter way of responding seems more intuitive in the case of the good times with Jennie in relation to the bad, than does the case of the sunshine and rain. What about life-and-death? Are there relevant differences between these three examples that I’ve missed? Or is the intuitiveness of the case with Jennie a matter of some other factors?

—What do you think?






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