On Being Omnipotent

The following post was created first as a Twitter thread. I’ve copied and pasted it here, reformatted to fit the medium, with some additional thoughts and small edits to hopefully be a little more cohesive. Original thread: https://twitter.com/namaodteloah/status/1530363509065650177

Every now and then (usually in the face of tragedy), I find myself wondering how I would handle being in a “Bruce Almighty” situation. And it’s interesting to see the change in my thought patterns over the years in this context. Compared to previous such thought excursions, the ultimate goal hasn’t really deviated from reducing suffering and encouraging or cultivating greater respect for one’s self, other people, and the local and global environment.

But the approaches I consider to achieve that goal are fairly different now than they have been even only five years ago. And that difference really boils down to the question of whether I want to just solve some or all of humanity’s problems for them, or to give them the resources to do it themselves. (Anthrocentric, to be sure, but I don’t want to get off track here.) Maybe it’s the things I’ve learned about trauma and how it affects our development and function at any stage of life, and how we get our needs met. Maybe it’s all my Sag-Gem axis placements. Maybe it’s the influence of the Age of Aquarius. Maybe (likely) it’s some combination of all of these factors, as well as others that I haven’t considered or even thought of. But I don’t just want the problems to go away, I want my children to LEARN from them. I know they can do and be better, and I want them to see that too. Although it’s not a complete metaphor, I think my current position is fairly well-illustrated by this exchange from Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons:”

A couple months back, on a peaceful afternoon inside Vatican City, Chartrand had bumped into the camerlengo coming across the grounds. The camerlengo had apparently recognized Chartrand as a new guard and invited him to accompany him on a stroll. They had talked about nothing in particular, and the camerlengo made Chartrand feel immediately at home.
“Father,” Chartrand said, “may I ask you a strange question?”
The camerlengo smiled. “Only if I may give you a strange answer.”
Chartrand laughed. “I have asked every priest I know, and I still don’t understand.”
“What troubles you?” The camerlengo led the way in short, quick strides, his frock kicking out in front of him as he walked. His black, crepe-sole shoes seemed befitting, Chartrand thought, like reflections of the man’s essence … modern but humble, and showing signs of wear.
Chartrand took a deep breath. “I don’t understand this omnipotent-benevolent thing.”
The camerlengo smiled. “You’ve been reading Scripture.”
“I try.”
“You are confused because the Bible describes God as an omnipotent and benevolent deity.”
“Omnipotent-benevolent simply means that God is all-powerful and well-meaning.”
“I understand the concept. It’s just … there seems to be a contradiction.”
“Yes. The contradiction is pain. Man’s starvation, war, sickness …”
“Exactly!” Chartrand knew the camerlengo would understand. “Terrible things happen in this world. Human tragedy seems like proof that God could not possibly be both all-powerful and well-meaning. If He loves us and has the power to change our situation, He would prevent our pain, wouldn’t He?”
The camerlengo frowned. “Would He?”
Chartrand felt uneasy. Had he overstepped his bounds? Was this one of those religious questions you just didn’t ask? “Well … if God loves us, and He can protect us, He would have to. It seems He is either omnipotent and uncaring, or benevolent and powerless to help.”
“Do you have children, Lieutenant?”
Chartrand flushed. “No, signore.”
“Imagine you had an eight-year-old son … would you love him?”
“Of course.”
“Would you do everything in your power to prevent pain in his life?”
“Of course.”
“Would you let him skateboard?”
Chartrand did a double take. The camerlengo always seemed oddly “in touch” for a clergyman. “Yeah, I guess,” Chartrand said. “Sure, I’d let him skateboard, but I’d tell him to be careful.”
“So as this child’s father, you would give him some basic, good advice and then let him go off and make his own mistakes?”
“I wouldn’t run behind him and mollycoddle him if that’s what you mean.”
“But what if he fell and skinned his knee?”
“He would learn to be more careful.”
The camerlengo smiled. “So although you have the power to interfere and prevent your child’s pain, you would choose to show your love by letting him
learn his own lessons?”
“Of course. Pain is part of growing up. It’s how we learn.”
The camerlengo nodded. “Exactly.”

Dan Brown, Angels and Demons

I feel like a critical piece missing from this metaphor is that even if I want them to be able to make mistakes, I still don’t want to see them hurt and if necessary I would tend to their wounds. As proclaimed in the Headless Rite/Liber Samekh/Stele of Jeu, “I am He, the Truth, who hates that unjust deeds are done in the world!” (The exact phrasing will vary by translation, but the basic idea is the same.) I recognize the importance/necessity/value of pain as a teaching tool, AND it sucks that pain is a teaching tool. And it’s because of this value that I can’t just eliminate it altogether. It feels naive to think “oh, I’ll just make it so no one feels pain!” Apart from the survival function that pain serves, how would that change the human experience? What would our lives be like if we could never know sorrow, heartbreak, fear, grief, disappointment? The Buddha says that “the root of suffering is attachment.” Yet if we detach ourselves so much from our bodies, from the world, that we no longer suffer, where does that leave us? What do we become, and what value do we get from being so far removed? Especially when pain, even at the small degree where it would be more commonly called “discomfort,” is one of the most basic ways we know that some need of ours is not being met?

I can’t begin to imagine, let alone propose or describe, what such a life might be like. So rather than just administering a global and perpetual analgesic, I would reduce hurt and harm where I could, where I thought it needless or excessive. I couldn’t do much about the ache of existence before I start fundamentally altering what it means to be human, to have free will, to unite with the divine. After all, much of our decision-making process is based around avoidance of harmful stimuli; without that central factor, I question whether our choices and the actions that follow become at all significant in a moral or educational sense, and if that’s the case, whether we could still say we have the capacity of free will. I have to believe that asperity is an intrinsic part of not only our survival, growth, and our overall human experience. Per aspera ad astra. “Through hardships to the stars.” Ascending the Tree of Life, we cannot reach the sphere of the stars, Chokmah (and further, unification with the divine in Kether) without first passing through the sphere of Binah. Binah, which (who?) is the head of the Pillar of Severity and is connected to Saturn. Saturn, who is the Greater Malefic, who brings difficulties and hardships, who teaches through adversity. Yet, at the same time, Saturn who is the Great Mother, who is Binah, whose name is “Understanding.” In learning the lessons of suffering we come closer to the Divine.

About 12 years ago I read Andy Weir’s short story “The Egg” for the first time, and it changed me and has stuck with me since. After learning about the informational model of magic, I took the end premise of the story a little further. Like others, I’m sure. Based on the story, in order to be “born,” we, as individual drops of a greater essence, have to experience every life ever. In my view then, each of us in our particular incarnations is a like a node collecting data, connected to some cosmic CPU. For what purpose aside from this Grand Nativity, I couldn’t begin to fathom. Considering the proposal of a fractal nature to existence, could be eggs all the way up (and down). And for better or worse, the experience of suffering is necessary for as complete a data set as possible. Once all that has been learned, the data compiled, We will be born.

So even if I don’t have the powers of God to change things at the slightest thought, or even if I feel like I can’t change anything in this transient form, I can take some small comfort in the belief that, regardless, my being here still serves a purpose, whatever it may be. All this is really to say I don’t want people to suffer if at all possible, but I don’t want people’s lives to be lived for them either. And I’ll do what I can in this turn of the coil to make progress toward that goal.

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” There’s some good left in this world, and it’s worth fighting for. Thanks for reading.

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