Others have long argued, and I assent, that we are grossly mistaken to equate myth with falsehood. To the contrary, mythologists, philosophers, and even theologians point out that myths are not untrue, they are statements of eternal truth; they are metaphor, and through metaphor we can gain insights in the truths of our human condition. As great thinkers such as Joseph Campbell or Bishop John Shelby Spong have taught me, sometimes our biggest errors involve literalizing myth into history—which is an evolutionary process through which we sadly destroy the truth of the metaphor. That said, today I want to reflect a bit on the myth of original sin, why it resonates with me, and how we might find redemption for our “sins.”

A Brief History of Sin

In Christianity, sin is a peculiar thing. In the earliest times of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), sin was a very different concept than the one we think of today. Modern Christians can’t imagine life without sin, but the Hebrew predecessors of Christianity surely could. Suffering could be minimized by celebrating the honor and opportunity to obey God’s laws of diet and conduct—which most certainly could be accomplished in full. But when ultimately God’s chosen people still suffered even more over the centuries, the ideas of sin became much more distinct and separate from God and humans alike. The pious Hebrews believed they had satisfied the legal requirements, but still they saw that suffering continued. Sin then evolved—over the latter centuries BCE—into a force; demons or spirits were the cause of suffering. Certainly by the time of apocalypticists like Paul and the Jesus figure, we see a full-fledged notion that “the devil made us do it,” and that such a force was in control of all the people in power.

Later, in the second century, when God’s kingdom did not come to earth “as it is in heaven,” and did not turn the world upside down as imminently predicted—tossing out those in control; granting the meek inheritance of the world; removing the corrupt people in power who were controlled by the dark spirits—well, a new form of sin and salvation evolved. The old notion of what Dr. Barth Ehrman calls horizontal dualism (where good and evil swap places on a horizontal timeline—God’s kingdom that was to come to earth and end this era of pain and demonic control), instead turned to “vertical dualism,” where good and evil were spiritual battles between realms, and within us, rather than chronological and literal transformations here on earth. In short, it became clear there would be no literal “second coming,” because we got it wrong; God’s salvation was not a literal thing in this world, it was a spiritual thing between vertical spiritual realms.

This evolution in thinking can even be clearly seen when progressing from “Mark,” the earliest of the canonical gospels, to the more mystical, Gnostic, or spiritual gospel of “John.” (The quotes indicate that authorship is unknown.) Many—perhaps most—second-century “Christians” believed this material world was an accident, caused by a rouge god and a cosmic misfire between the layers of the heavens, and should not have come into existence at all. Indeed all matter was evil and bad, though some “chosen” ones had special knowledge and access to sparks of divinity that could allow them to access—or even return to—the higher spirit worlds in the heavens. Sex was material and bad; Mary was therefore a virgin (or so became, after Mark’s original gospel in which no such claim was made); pleasure was bad. From this ascetic background, and the evils of our material beings, comes this “we are sinful” stuff that we think of as “sin” in the evolved, modern sense of today’s Christianity.

SIN BECOMES AN INHERTITED, INTERNAL STRUGGLE

So through the evolution of the myth, we move to a narrative of highly guilt-ridden internalizations of evil spirits, and to self-hatred. While even Saint Augustine appeared not to take the Garden of Eden story as literal history, he surely ran with the idea of original contamination of our essence—if not our genome. Some might call him the popularizer of the whole “sin and self loathing” element of Christianity, the same element that often seems so counterintuitive and counterproductive to those on the outside of the faith.

In this regard, the Doctrine of Original Sin is the harmful and sometimes silly-sounding concept that is easy to dismiss, especially for the non-believer. The whole notion of one’s self being so depraved, so horrible, so without merit in God’s eyes, so unworthy of even being allowed to breath without God’s mercy—let alone have pleasure (sinful ice-cream, or physical pleasure)—is all too deeply engrained in Christianity, particularly among the more fire-and-brimstone sects (Evangelicals; Baptists; Pentacostals; etc.). Many modern thinkers dismiss this self flagellation and argue that being taught how horribly harmful and wicked we are, beginning in early childhood, is downright harmful to a healthy psychological development and existence; I agree. At the same time this myth of being “sinful by nature” still resonates with me in some important ways, and is worthy of reflection.

THE MERIT OF THE MYTH

Is it possible to live without causing harm? Saint Augustine surely argued it is not; and I find myself in agreement. We eat animals, often causing them great horror and distress before; we put our needs ahead of others; we say things we don’t mean out of vulnerability; we believe in survival of the fittest (though in some bastardization of the scientific fact of evolution—turning it into some twisted eugenics program where we pay homage to the Gordon Gekkos of the world and worship those who can willfully disregard others); we rationalize competition over cooperation; we forget the Golden Rule; and we hurt real people as we worship our idols, making it a virtue to stay focused on our goals while not being “distracted” by others who need help—lest we be accused of being a “bleeding heart” who will disrupt the rising tide.

Some of my “granola crunch” friends are vegetarians. Of them, some see the consumption of animal flesh as something that should be avoided altogether, since it tends to support violent, painful, and unnecessary harm or suffering to conscious beings (our cousins). To a large degree, I agree, though my cognitive dissonance allows me to enjoy a good filet to this day. But is that not sin? Is that not the absence of perfect holiness and charity? Is there not value to such an idea of perfect love and the absence of causing hurt, angst, harm, or pain?

I have often agreed with M. Scott Peck: egocentrism is the best definition of evil. It is through blatantly hedonistic and selfish action—without empathic or sympathetic interest in the effects of one’s actions on others—that great horrors come into existence. It is for selfish people who care not what they do to others that we sometimes wish there were eternal punishment. But to what degree do we not all cause harm simply by living? I mentioned my pursuit of food. I, too, often wrestle a mother turkey from her babies, and kill and eat her, beyond the bounds dictated by my dietary requirements. I spend money on a Friday libation rather than send it to those still suffering in Haiti.

Are not all these things selfish? Are we not sinners in the mythological sense that our very existence and “selfish genes”—that drive us to survive and feed our delusions of “self”—cause harm in the world? How can we seek redemption and aspire to live at as high a level as possible, causing the least possible pain to others? Are these not questions worthy of our consideration?

Many regular readers will recall that I and my wife of twenty years have chosen to take more distinct paths through life, and will no longer be married. While truly I have no regrets and much appreciation for our 20 years—and we both made no decisions without honest forethought and considerable interest in the well-being of one another—the fact remains that people I love are suffering, and they are suffering for events of which I was a part. Even if hypothetically I bear zero blame for causing suffering (a claim I would not make), any role we play in a chain of events that leads to suffering feels horrible, and also demonstrates some degree of culpability by virtue of our being in the chain. (If we weren’t alive and present, this wouldn’t have happened.)

Even where our choices are not purely selfish, what choices do we make in life—even to give to a charity—that do not have some selfish motivation? Is that selfishness not part of our “original sin,” the admission we must all make that once we breath air, and interact with the world, we will cause harm to something, or someone?

My heart always goes out to people who by pure accident cause injury or death to another person. It elicits in some cases as much sympathy from me as does the victim—perhaps even more. How does one ever forgive one’s self for such a thing? It’s one of my greatest of fears not only for myself, but for my sixteen-year-old son as he takes the wheel of a car.

AN ATTEMPT AT SOLUTIONS

Big questions remain, and obviously answers are elusive; but this is part of the reason mythologies are so ubiquitous and meaningful to us, because those mythologies give us a framework through which we can seek forgiveness, redemption, salvation, and ultimately a sufficiently-clean slate to try to plow forward productively for our remaining days of life. So how can we skeptics benefit from that mythological framework, yet function within a real world while continuing that march toward a useful life?

Certainly I don’t have all the answers, and I’ll await your comments, but here are a few thoughts:

1. First, it seems that we must remain obsessively vigilant of the effect of our choices on others. Perhaps a daily “prayer” asking ourselves how what we did today affected others—and what effect our choices of tomorrow will have—would be a useful practice. We would thereby learn from our mistakes, be conscious of them, and seek to avoid making similar errors. If we do this, even while I thoughtfully eat my occasional steak, it would seem we have made progress.

2. Restitution: If we genuinely play a causal role in suffering or hurt, we need to do all that we can to make it right.

3. Forgive: Whether you are the one who sinned or are the victim who is now is being uncharitable in your treatment of the perpetrator, forgiveness is a very big concept. Books are written entirely on this powerful word. And it is worth noting that sometimes it is ourselves whom we most need to forgive, in order to plow forward and add meaning to our lives, and the lives of others.

4. Perhaps toughest of all, we can celebrate for others their successes, accomplishments, and especially their good fortunes. Jealousy can get in our way; but with conscious effort we will do better than without, and we will prosper in the bountiful harvest of goodwill, which in turn will feed us.

5. Love: Love embodies selfless giving to others, in whatever form you give it. Love embodies the Golden Rule. Giving more is a good thing. This leads to perhaps a Hippocratic Oath of original sin: Do as little harm as possible, being cognizant of the effects of your actions on everyone and everything else; and give love abundantly in penance for your “original sin.”

Conclusion

It seems that if we regularly take these most basic of steps, even our own self interests can become “enlightened,” as Earl Nightingale used to say. Yes, we can pursue our own growth and development—consume food (animal flesh if we must, respectfully appreciated at a minimum), enter into relationships, seek intellectual nourishment and education—but still fully recognize that a complete absence of negative impact is likely impossible.

We do cause harm through mere existence, but be it through the insights into redemption that are offered by myths and metaphors—or through conscious intention and attention—that harm of “Original Sin” can be far less than the benefit we provide to the world.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2010, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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In a blog that purports to examine the real-world applications of a skeptical worldview, and what it means to embrace a search for “reality” while still celebrating all that is beautiful about the depths of earthly human experiences, one can reasonably expect personal references. That said, it’s never been a goal to make Perspectives about me; but today, after a couple months of notable absences from blog posts and podcasts, and even reduced Facebook ruminations, an update seems appropriate.

The reason for my absence involves some major personal changes and challenges, especially those surrounding the transition out of my 20-year marriage to a phenomenal, great-hearted woman—with whom I have had the honor of sharing what surely must be one of life’s most challenging and rewarding chapters. While there is perhaps sufficient beauty, pain, melancholy, love, and grief for a compelling book someday, at this stage I wanted to expound upon a particularly irritating phrase from the conventional vernacular of divorce—“failed marriage”—and then ponder the notion that “number of years sustained” is the only good measure of the success of a relationship.

It might sound like a delusional rationalization, and as a skeptic I must admit that is a possibility—but of all the terms, axioms, and clichés that I’ve heard bandied about surrounding “divorce,” none do I find less applicable, nor despise more, than “failed marriage.” You see to call the backdrop that was our marriage—in front of which my soon-to-be former wife and I expended great energy to lovingly embrace and live within some unique challenges; loved and raised two amazing children; shared and exchanged the deepest love I have known (a bond that will likely transcend all others in my life); experienced fits-and-starts as we decided to let one another fly and be free to experience and grow beyond the confines of marriage—to call any of that a failure would be akin to calling the life of a great philosopher, teacher, or statesman a failure merely because the season of that individual’s life came to an end.

Questioning Convention

The fact is that human relationships are among the toughest, most rewarding, most trying, and most growth-inducing experiences that humanity has to offer. In the pages of this blog, and certainly of my novel, you have seen me boldly question social norms, including those of marriage and monogamy. On my podcast you heard a leading marriage expert suggest that until the last fifty years, marriage was never primarily about love, or sex; it was about property, business, and social structure, not romance. You have also heard me ponder what a world without jealousy might look like, and ask if true love can ever really end.

I ask these questions not because I have answers, but because I am a life-long student of human nature, of culture, of rethinking morals with a more utilitarian philosophical bent, and of our human fallibilities. And among those fallibilities, perhaps might just be the way we structure and define the goals we set for relationships. Let’s examine an example. 

The Ultimate Measure of Success

When young people take their wedding vows, they pledge a number of things to which I have argued they simply do not, as a matter of absolute certain fact, have the ability to consent or promise. Forget the fact that 50% of marriages end in divorce; the reality that nobody can predict the future, that nobody can predict where either partner’s mind will be in five years—let alone fifty, should tell us that there is literally no way one has the omniscience, and therefore ability, to promise with certitude he or she will stay with someone else forever, live together, and exclusively feed one another’s every emotional and physical need. A person may be able to reasonably make that prediction, based on experience, education, knowledge of the other’s character, etc., but she cannot, I argue (for the sake of stimulating blog posts at a minimum), promise and pledge such.

There are many things you can pledge and reasonably promise in vows: to be kind, to work to resolve conflicts with the other’s interests in mind, to be respectful at all times, to care for and co-parent offspring, and so forth. But you cannot pledge the impossible; humans simply lack the omniscience to pledge that we will always be the perfect fit for one another, and will always choose to remain together despite those differences.

Those who think they can know all possible future scenarios with certainty, and all possible future outcomes, are either delusional, or divine. People change. People grow. People disintegrate and commit crimes. People hide their dark sides. (Luckily none of the dubious elements apply to my situation in any way.) After all, few of the 50% of people who divorce can look back and say that on their wedding day they foresaw that which would end their marriage. It just doesn’t work that way. And what if your husband became a murderer, or a thief, or an addict? You can predict that won’t happen, but there are no guarantees. So why do we make such promises?

In short, we pledge “forever” because of social and cultural traditions surrounding either property rights, or of late, romantic love. Still, we do so confidently and often somewhat uncritically, based on historical evidence about the person to whom we are pledging “forever,” our best judgment at the time, and to a large degree based upon faith, hope, and even wishful thinking. Still, a few of us get lucky. I believe I did.

Longevity for It’s Own Sake?

But what if you could pledge forever in an ideal world? Should we then do so? Is longevity, for its own sake, really all that it is cracked up to be? Or is it possible that one person might be just exactly the right fit for one phase of our lives—perhaps for parenting or child-rearing, but not the perfect fit for our golden years? Is it possible that one person can teach us and help us grow or discover brilliant insights about ourselves in our fifties, but that those insights would have been missing or would have escaped us if we’d met in our twenties?

In the workplace I’ve long questioned longevity for longevity’s sake. The “vesting”; the gold watch ceremonies; seniority and social promotion; the indignant rants: “I’ve put thirty-five years into (fill in the blank) and I deserve (fill in the blank).” Maybe, just maybe, there are times when we should change jobs, change companies, or even change careers altogether.

In the industrial era we came to worship longevity, but what if change is actually better for us? What if it can help us learn, be refreshed, grow, meet new people and new challenges, and become better, more-fulfilled, well-rounded humans?

Is the same not arguable when it comes to human relationships? People grow, change, ebb, and flow. They outgrow one another, or they grow at separate times, or diverge down radically different paths (not our case, but rhetorically it happens). Is it possible that it is our traditions of ignorant or impossible pledges, and associated requirements of omniscience, that need fixing more so than the underlying tendencies to worship longevity as the ultimate measure of a relationship’s value?

We seem obsessed that longevity should be the ultimate goal. Our culture tells me that I should work for one company (a virtual impossibility anymore—but nonetheless it is still a mythological ideal), and love only one person (especially if sex is involved)—for as long as humanly possible, no matter what. To do otherwise is somehow “wrong.” You are a “job hopper” or someone who “couldn’t keep a marriage together.”

Don’t get me wrong. Longevity is of course a worthy goal on many levels. I have written often about the great value of the depth of love that comes only after the romantic flames have cooled, and the broader, more stable love settles in with a warmth that transcends the passion of new love. My nearly twenty years with Julie taught me that lesson, among many others, and I hope we can still share that common and unique bond of deep caring for one another forever. Clearly I admit that I can’t see the future, but I think we will.

Conclusion

It might be easy to dismiss me as merely rationalizing a mid-life crisis, and perhaps rightfully so, insofar as I’m too close to my situation to argue the point dispassionately. But I would simply point out that a) I certainly don’t fear commitment; in fact I think commitments and contracts are a vital part of a civil society—when they are supportable by practice, consent, and tradition; b) further, I am proud of our twenty years together through plenty and want, joy and grief, belief and unbelief, and the inevitable challenges of abandoning personal baggage and melding a long-term, loving relationship; and c) I have been asking these philisophical questions for many years from a moral standpoint, with no intention they would apply to me—so it would seem consistent to continue to ask them even now.

All that said, changing chapters in life is painful. It is traumatic. It is upsetting. It is a lot of things. But for me, in our situation, the kindness and love that has been shared could never, under any circumstances, ever be considered a “failed marriage.” Merely typing that term leaves me indignantly and emphatically shaking my head “no.” Perhaps to someone who defines a relationship based on quantity of years rather than quality, such a thing could be alleged. But to me, I’ve been truly fortunate to have had such a wonderful soul mate and partner as Julie. I will learn and grow more in this new chapter of life, but I’m confident that the last one was of a quality and concentration that it was beyond what many experience in a lifetime. I am so very much richer, and so truly “blessed” for having lived that chapter with Julie Gibson, and I hope she will be a regular character and travel partner in life’s next chapter as well.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2010, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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What interests me about the Tiger Woods story is not what seems to interest everyone else. What interests me is our collective reaction to the story of his alleged affairs. So what does this story, and the coverage and reaction to it, really say about reality—about how the world and our culture really function? As you may recall, understanding truth and reality is very much my tortured quest, so I feel like I have to take a shot at drawing a couple lessons from all this. Here is where I’m headed today: we are all to blame for not understanding the real world as it exists, verses the world we are told exists. In this post I hope to show that we don’t actually care, as a society, about affairs; we only say that we do. Then, I will argue that we really should care about affairs, but probably not for the reasons most people think, and that we are all part of the problem.

A pastor friend of mine once made an observation about people who lash out in anger about another person’s “moral transgressions.” He said that those most inclined to spew forth over-the-top indictments are often angered less by the transgression, and angered more by the belief that the perpetrator is “getting away with something.” He argued it is less the act, and more the jealousy and iniquity that cause the rush to burn someone at the stake. “Hey, you can’t do that—because I can’t do that, so you must be labeled and tossed in the fire.”

Let me stop here and disclose my personal position on the alleged Tiger Woods actions. A central moral of my novel, A Secret of the Universe—which deals heavily with sexual ethics and the supposed “morality” taught by religion, is that lying and deception about extramarital sexual activity are on a much lower moral plane than the actual acts of sexual activity outside marriage. Part of this conclusion follows easily from a true and historical journey through the actual sexual ethics suggested and exhibited in the Bible, versus the gross misunderstandings that have completely usurped modern Christianity, through forces such as Augustine and Marcion. But whatever the reasons, my guess is that even many evangelicals would agree that lying and cheating and having sex with someone other than your spouse, is way worse than consenting and loving sex with someone other than your spouse, with that spouse’s permission.

Back to Tiger Woods. Almost ironically, most women I know do not condone his alleged indiscretions, but they seem to believe we know of him due to golf, and that the allegations not related to golf are irrelevant. Perhaps, but I have a different take.

Here is what gets me. If the allegations are true, Tiger Woods is a liar and a deceiver. Granted he’s not alone in that; it isn’t about something we seem to think rises to the level of lies about taxes or money matters; and please understand, there could be many reasons, circumstances, and factors involved (who knows, and who cares). I realize all that. My point is not to judge him, but as a student of human behaviors and societal norms I am interested. Tiger, who has been the picture of discipline when it comes to athletics, was apparently not so disciplined and honest with his wife and family, and probably not honest with himself. Does this not beg the question why? Why wasn’t he honest with himself and others?

Our Complicity

We’ve all seen it a thousand times. In fact, in light of a recent disclosure that my wife and I were separating (with no cheating or lying behind it, at all—and genuine interest in the other’s wellbeing never set aside), it occurred to me just how many people I know have happy marriages that have been the result of someone cheating.

We all know the stories: a boss who fell for his secretary and since then they together have been model citizens and churchgoers (it was “meant to be,” but not until he tossed his former wife under the proverbial bus); a co-worker whose office romance is, after years of happy marriage, viewed as cute and romantic tale of people clutching sweet joy and happiness from the ashes of mundane marriages; the friends who found growth potential and the beauty of selfless love in an affair that began at church, resulting in great “revelations” for them after the deep regret for the pain-causing transgression that caused hurt—but the resulting new happy couple is still damn glad they have each other rather than their previous spouses (wink, wink). All’s good in the end, we seem to say.

The point is that society isn’t really against anyone dumping one spouse and finding something new in another. Society really isn’t even really against cheating, though it claims to be. I’ll argue that it should be; but it isn’t, at least not a year after the fact. Hey, Christian recording artist Amy Grant seems ultra happy with Vince Gill, right? All’s well; we celebrate that for the lovely couple. Even Tiger, if he repents, will probably cease to be a leper in a year.

If you think about it, our culture tolerates, then essentially celebrates and promotes this kind of serial monogamy and exclusive love, this twisted view of ethics when it comes to love and relationships that clings to strict monogamy, until it’s time to quickly throw a loved one under the bus and find a new person to stay with “forever.” After all, we say “all is fair in love and war”; cheating and/or seducing another person’s spouse is cute—and even romantic—once the dust settles; and lying and deceit are not condoned, per say, but really they are gladly accepted after, oh, roughly six months have passed without a further “bad outcome.”

But why? Why the strange and mixed messages of approval and forbiddance? Why the cognitive dissonance of our culture on this topic? Why don’t we get really serious and burn people at the stake for cheating, like in some countries (usually just the women though)? Why don’t we really seem to care, a year later when the new couples are all happy?

Well, the answer is simple, really. We don’t care because … it seems that human nature has some problem with lifetime exclusivity of genuine and close interpersonal relationships—without exclusivity being implemented by force of culture, religion, or government. At some level, we get that! We also get that human relationships are complex and difficult to sustain for decades, in the modern world. We even say we’re happy for our friends and family who find what makes them happy, after they’ve cheated. We’re not really against changing horses midstream, are we?

Why we should care

So now that we have a small but important part of the answer to the original question about why Tiger would cheat, we can move on to the bigger question: “Why should we really care about affairs, as a society?”

We should care because of the lying and the deceit and the hurt! And to some degree maybe we do, but when we deny the very “why” that leads to the lying and deceit, we are experiencing a massive cognitive dissonance and a breakdown between cause and effect, and thereby perpetuating a truly destructive force. We ignore the effect (lying and deceit), by ignoring human nature and the human potential to learn and grow and love wastefully through others; we ignore the cause (human nature), by deluding ourselves with fairy-tale expectations and tacit support of serial monogamy, wherein we toss one relationship aside to begin an new one, thus destroying lives with the lies and deceit that we demand through our denial of reality.

We are deluded about what marriage is, and what it should be. We say it is about love, but love cannot be contained and bottled exclusively for one person forever. When did we decide it should be? (No, I’m not talking about sex.) When did we start pretending that the genie belongs in the bottle? The thing we actually decided, historically speaking, was that long-term commitments—for kids, business, and life—were a good thing. I agree. But only recently did we decide to marry for romantic love, and be exclusively sustained by an ultra-intimate bond with only one person—for life, or even that a person somehow owns another’s emotional experiences. (See Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by sociologist and marriage expert Stephanie Coontz, or hear my interview with her here on .mp3 audio).

Conclusion:

Tiger Woods’ situation is worth pondering. It’s worth pondering not for the purpose of judging him, but because all experiences and information can teach us about the world. Tiger Woods should not have hurt people by lying and deceiving them; on an individual level he presumably needs to fix that, seek forgiveness and redemption, and not do that again. But that’s only half the story. We are to blame as well. Our societal expectations and complicit demands for serial monogamy; our approval of recoupling and our approach that “all is fair in love and war”; our complicit acceptance of human nature while simultaneously denying that very same human capacity to be enriched by loving more than one person in lifetime—all mean WE are not without blame in the schizophrenic demands we’ve placed upon the cultural institution of marriage. Collectively we either need to get serious about enforcing life-long exclusivity and bans on loving more than one person in a lifetime—and get serious about burning people at the stake; or perhaps we should consider divorcing the life-time expectations of exclusive love from the true sins of malicious lies and deceit.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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As a sappy skeptic, I have written extensively about the human emotion we call “love,” including a novel about religious and tribal conflict, wherein the ultimate secret revealed by religion, history, humanists, and contemplatives of all cultures and stripes is that the power of love—and the golden rule—are the true beacons that call us to a higher, more enlightened way of achieving our greatest potential. In today’s post I’m going to share a personal disclosure, and then ask a question I’ve asked in a previous post: Does true love ever end? Finally, I’ll be compelled to ponder whether people have varying capacities to love, and how that capacity, or lack thereof, affects our linked existences.

To get there, however, let’s begin with a Hollywood-inspired question. Can we love someone dearly, but find that due to the forces of life, career, culture, religious prohibition, or some other environmental factors, that we are forbidden from being with that person and sharing daily life? Can the movies that I so reject for celebrating only the lusty or temporary romantic brand of love still reflect great truths when they portray the tragedy of love that is forbidden, lost to death, or otherwise prohibited from pursuit? Clearly I have long argued that life for most humans in the history of our species has largely been suffering, punctuated with spells pain-free, if perhaps even joyous, existence. For this reason, and in this regard, it seems that Hollywood’s portrayal of unfulfilled/unfulfillable love is far more useful and accurate than the glorification of romantic love—so yes, it reflects great truths about our existence.

Now, in case you are wondering, no, I am not in some existential crisis of lost or forbidden love. In fact, the depth of my experience of love has probably never been greater, so my situation is actually quite the opposite. That said, a recent personal disclosure has left some people scratching their heads, while others see the great love that is genuinely involved. It is through these reactions that I am gaining insights into the issues at hand: the human capacity to love, and the endurance of true love.

A Disclosure

You see, my dearest wife, the central actor in my “life play” to date, the soul whose amazing heart was inspiration for aspects of the two central female characters in my novel—whom one Gnostic religion professor saw as a female Christ figure, and the woman whom I should reiterate that I love as deeply and truly as I’ve ever experienced love—recently joined me in issuing a letter to friends and family disclosing a desire to spend some time experiencing daily living outside the roles we’ve established through twenty years of family life. In other words, it’s time to search for and embrace a new chapter and a new phase in our evolution as individuals and soul mates, scary though that may be. You might call it a spiritual journey or a trial separation, which may seem like dramatically different things, though I’m not so sure they necessarily are.

It is worth clarifying that our life-long commitments of undying support and love—to the degree any human has sufficient ability to consent to such grandiose promises—remain completely in force. There has been no cheating, no deceit, no shouting, no fighting; essentially there has been love and desire for the other to experience his or her full potential as well as all that life has to offer. Weird, huh? It’s kind of like the old “if you love something set it free” idea, I suppose.

At any rate, and very understandably, when others look at our situation they do so through a heuristic—one of those problem solving strategies that help us quickly and efficiently categorize and resolve puzzles in life. In this case the specific heuristic employed by most people says that when two married people stop living together they must be angry, shout, throw things, someone must have cheated, someone must have lied, and very likely both must be angry and have stopped loving one another—perhaps except for some twisted, platitude-like frothing, or a need to reconcile present disdain with the thousands of previous testimonials of forever love.

But as we skeptics often point out, those brilliantly efficient problem solving strategies—these prejudices and heuristics—can lead us far astray in their efforts at efficiency. In the case of me and my wife, and in the case of many people whom I know who have selflessly celebrated for someone they love, and truly “set that person free”—as people do with their children when they leave the nest— being apart does not signal an end to love. In fact regardless of how you define true love (see my attempt here), there are countless situational examples where true love endures as people are forced—or in part selflessly choose, in the interest of those they love—to grant freedoms and experience the apartness that is essential to the growth and/or survival of individuals, or relationships.

In the end, does true love end? Personally, I’ve pondered the question for a while now, and admit there may be scenarios I’ve not considered. But that said, to me true love that is based on full knowledge of one’s character and composition, cannot ever end. Even when we perceive it to end for others, we do so because we either fail to see the continuation of the love—due to our misapplied heuristic, which says that being apart denotes lack of love; we do so because our fallible human mind needs to create a narrative to explain some action or behavior; or we entirely dismiss our “love” as merely an historic fantasy—a delusion from the beginning. But true, selfless, deep and caring concern and admiration for another seems to me that it is, and must be, timeless and enduring—transcending even death (see post “The Truth About Life After Death”).

Capacity to Love

This brings me to the question of capacity for love. Are we all equal in our capacity for selfless caring and love? It seems the clear answer is “no.” We can debate until the cows come home why that might be—if it is environmental, genetic, or in what combination; but simple observation makes clear that there are people who, if you’ll allow me the metaphor, are more “Christ-like” in their ability to love (as defined by I Corinthians—which seems a great definition). Yet at the same time there are also people who are sociopathically egocentric and void of the “empathy gene,” in a way that kills any ability or desire to place themselves in someone else’s shoes, or put the needs of another person ahead of their own.

With Christmas day behind us, and the metaphors, symbols, and cultural infusions of meaning into the 25th of December (or winter solstice) fresh in our minds, it is perhaps a good time to draw a few conclusions.

Conclusions:

The first conclusion (provisionally of course): Most of us, in reality, have a mix of egocentrism and empathy, and therefore have at least a moderate ability to lovingly put others’ needs ahead of our own; we have some capacity for true love.

Second conclusion: That said, to me the value of idealism, and the value of the metaphors of Christmas, surround the goal of becoming all that we can be, and stretching our ability to love and care selflessly for others. Perhaps it is in loving purely and completely and wastefully, and throwing caution to the wind, that we become as fully human and as fully “divinely connected” to one another, and to the universe, as we humans can possibly dream of being. After all, a goal of loneliness and disconnection would make no sense, right? No, the opposite seems historically demonstrable as the loftiest, and I’d argue most worthwhile, of all human ambitions—connectedness.

Third conclusion: Still, the sad reality is that some will never “get” that my wife and I could still love one another extremely deeply, yet still encourage the other to travel away for a while—or even, god forbid, find additional love with another. For some of these people this is because they are among the many, many, who for biological reasons or something far more complex, are void of any capacity to even minimally see through the eyes of another, or place another before them; to them, beyond all other forms, such love is incomprehensible. Sure, for others there might be what appear to be somewhat less unenlightened reasons not to “get it”—like allegations that we have quit on each other or taken the institution of marriage and commitment too lightly; but these other views have less relevance to the topic at hand so I won’t digress into them further.

You see through my wife, and through a very select few other people that I’ve had the profound pleasure of sharing time with in this limited journey, I have seen glimpses of the most amazing and pure force that I believe humanity can ever experience. So the final conclusion I offer today is that selfless, true love is indeed real, enduring, and permanent, though in many ways it defies explanation or definition.

I have seen love so pure and strong that one cannot help but weep. I have seen empathy and compassion. I have seen caring and celebration for the joy of another, even when that person would like nothing more for his/her self than that very thing being celebrated. That, is love, and I mourn for those who passed this recent Christmas without yet knowing such love. I mourn for those who have known such love, but who can no longer touch it and experience it directly on a daily basis—because they have been forced to be separate from it in some way.

Mostly, however, I mourn for those to whom love is invisible, tasteless, without fragrance, without feel, and beyond experience. For whatever reason, they are numerous; in some cases they are dangerous. But in all cases, they are among the greatest tragedies of human existence, because it is through connections—no matter how remote—that our existence is defined, and our immortality tasted. True love endures.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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From Today’s Truth-Driver Commentary on WKZO Talk Radio AM 590 (Commentary mp3 file; full interview with Dr. David Hanson mp3 file):

Thomas Jefferson said, “It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing than to believe what is wrong.” In my quest for truth, however, I’ve found that there are some questions so politically incorrect that you can’t even ask them; but if we want truth, we need to have the conversations. One is so-called drunk driving at low levels, and the increasing push for zero tolerance. What if I told you that there are sociologists and researchers who make a very compelling case that modern hysteria about low-level intoxicated driving is based more on fear than facts? That data are mangled by emotion-driven crusaders against alcohol rather than good science and evidence—and that truly bombed drivers, distracted drivers on phones, and drugged drivers are much bigger problems than someone who’s had a glass of wine or two with dinner and blows a .08 BAC? Dr. David J. Hanson is a retired sociologist from State University of New York, Pottsdam:

We have a common fallacy in our society that a person who has a drink and then goes out and drives is a great risk to him or herself as well as to others, and that’s simply not the case. Most people who drive intoxicated and have serious accidents have a BAC typically of about .17, which is dramatically higher than the .08, essentially twice as high.

So Dr. Hanson says it’s the people who get bombed and drive the wrong way down the highway at 90 mph who kill people and break things, not the person who had a pint after work. For clarity, Dr. Hanson would NEVER advocate drinking and driving; nor would I, and that’s not the point. The point is to ask what is true and what is not, and what are the costs of career-ending, reputation-destroying, financially devastating prosecutions for driving with as little as one drink in some US cities.

Dr. Hanson’s web site is http://www.alcoholfacts.org, and you can hear my extended interview with him in my archives at truthdriventhinking.com, or at the iTunes music store.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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Today’s Truth Driver Commentary for talk radio is something you really should hear. It’s about backward masking, because it’s making a comeback—and of course people still think it’s real. For those old enough to remember vinyl records, you probably remember the craze of playing them backwards and finding supposed secret messages or satanic verses hidden within. Unfortunately, backward masking is just yet another fantastic example of the way our minds are wired to seek patterns. Do you ever look at beautiful puffy white cumulus clouds and play that game where you try to see faces or shapes? And once someone points them out you can see them? It’s the same with backward masking!

To prove the point, I grabbed a song from my ipod—it’s called “I’m Gone,” from Christian artist and legend Michael W. Smith, on his album This is Your Time. If I were to play it for you backwards, you’d hear nothing but a strange garbled mess. But what if I were to tell you what you were going to hear before you hear it?

Some of you know of the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who completely dismissed Christianity. Well when you play the song backwards, you hear Michael W. Smith’s encoded slam on Nietzsche. It very clearly says “Nietzsche, you wanna run us down here? You and your big sickies?” (Listen here.) But does it really say that? Of course not.

Ironically there is even more to the phrase than I originally found. Here it is in full:

Nietzsche, you wanna run us down here? You and your big sickies.

Rotten is he, oh, Nietzsche’s the lost one.

The fact is that I pulled this song at random and had I not told you what to hear, you never would have heard it. As far as I know nobody has ever found a “backmasked” phrase in this song prior to me … and that’s because when you go looking for patterns, you can always find them. That’s what I did, and scientists call it the confirmation bias, or expectation bias. When you know what you want to find, you always can find it whether it’s there or not.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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From Today’s Truth-Driver Commentary on WKZO Talk Radio AM 590 (mp3 file):

When I was a kid I always had a fantasy that when you die you get to ask a giant, god-computer any questions you wanted, and you could know the answer. As an adult, that led me to think that for all questions there actually IS an answer; it’s just that usually the answers to real-world questions are so complicated that we can’t understand them.

• Do certain pesticides, or cell phones, cause cancer?

• Do free-range chickens provide more or better nutrients to our bodies?

• What is the exact degree of human impact on global warming?

• Is John Gosselin really an agoraphobic alien, here to take Kate and their eight to Vega for re-colonization? (Okay, that one is easy … yes.)

Here’s the scoop, we may never know what is true and what isn’t, but it seems that for almost all earthly questions that we can ask, there is one truth—complex though it may be. Truth (small t) exists! The reality might even be that there are 11 dimensions and competing realities, but then THAT complex truth would still be the truth of how things actually are.

But back here in the real world there are complicated, actual effects on society of allowing gay marriage; actual, real-world effects of any given tax policy; actual, real-world effects of getting health care administration costs aligned with the rest of our global competitors. There are true effects of these things, even if they are complex and unknowable. True answers exist for all questions we can ask.

Now I don’t know those answers, and you don’t know those answers. But I will assert this; the best way to approximately and provisionally estimate truth is not through emotion-driven thinking, yelling, shouting, claims that “my god is better than your god and my god wants it this way,” or even just by repeating a statement so many times that others will accept it as truth. The way to do it is with the tools of reason, science, evidence, and calm, intellectually honest dialogue; because the closer we come to approximating truth, the better the world will be. Taking action based upon true assumptions is the path to less suffering and greater satisfaction. Conversely, false or overly simple assumptions about how the world works will never help us maximize well-being, and will never help us achieve the greatest possible benefit for the greatest number of people.

So won’t you join me in my ongoing quest to set aside ego, and pursue truth, wherever it takes us?

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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