A Question of -- Why?

By Tony Downey
Everything worth thinking has already been thought, our concern must only be to try to think it through again. -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The one word that has dominated my life has been -- WHY? I must have been a very irritating child! However, when I went to school I quickly learned to bottle up most "whys" not only for the sake of my fellow students, but for the teachers who were quite convinced for a time that by staying after school and doing extra work, all my "whys" would be answered. They were not, of course; in fact more whys came and less were answered.

Picture the battlefront in France, Christmas Day 1917: British, French, Australian, and New Zealand troops in their trenches here, and German troops in their trenches there. For days, weeks, and months before, they had been shelling, shooting, and bayoneting each other to their death in the thousands. Midday Christmas Day a bugle sounds. Both sets of soldiers come out of their trenches, exchange cigarettes, drinks, and food, and even play football with each other. A bugle sounds again after a couple of hours: back to the trenches and on with the battle -- why?

From another angle we might ask, are there injustices in life? There certainly seem to be plenty. The Bible tells us that man has but three score years and ten on this earth. Life expectancy in Australia is around 82 years for women and 76 for men, so this is our "allotted" span. Is it tough luck if you find yourself born in an African country with an average life expectancy of 42? Tidal waves in Papua New Guinea, earthquakes in Colombia, tornadoes in North America, floods in India, and famines, droughts, natural disasters of all types worldwide -- how can we reconcile the terrible inequities in life with an all-loving God? We can't if we limit the experience of the soul to one short span of 70 years (or much less for most people today).

Let me share with you some of the basic theosophic ideas which have had a profound impact on the answer I have been searching for over many years. The most fundamental is that universal brotherhood is a fact in nature. Plants, animals, minerals, humans, planets, and stars are all living, evolving beings expressing themselves on the spiritual, intellectual, psychological, and material levels of the cosmos. Because all are essentially one, our thoughts and feelings have a great impact on others. For this reason, living in harmony with spiritual realities as best we can benefits not only those around us but also mankind as a whole.

Reincarnation and karma are perhaps the most widely known ideas that have been popularized by modern theosophy. While many people think of reincarnation as Oriental, it was present in many Western systems of thought, including Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy, as well as various forms of early Judaism and Christianity. Together, reincarnation and karma are keys that help explain each person's character and circumstances by tracing them to thoughts and actions in this or a past life. The events and circumstances we meet are a result of earlier choices and ways of life, and by meeting these consequences we evolve over a long series of lives.

All of us have developed to this point in our lives by our own volition -- though sadly some seem not to have evolved as far as others. Looking at the current wars and unrest around the world, at drug lords and those who consume their products, we may feel sobered. Yet we are never in a position to judge the inner worth or progress of another. One day, however long it may take and whatever generation may then be on the earth, all of us will be winners -- people who think, and who therefore are moved to change themselves in a spiritual direction.

Every person is in charge of his destiny if he chooses to exercise his divine capacity for thought and morally directed action. Eventually in our explorations we will come up against that unknowable principle -- infinite space, ceaseless motion, unending time -- from which universes, galaxies, and suns appear like twinkling lights, only to disappear into it once again. As Blaise Pascal wrote long ago:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. . . .
All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality. . . . By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought I comprehend the world.

Considering all this, I still find myself asking -- why? Constant thought is central to being human, as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out: "My thought is ME -- that is why I cannot stop. I exist by what I think -- and I can't prevent myself from thinking." We each have the ability to discover reality for ourselves, to learn to judge what is true and false, real and illusory. We will not grow by blindly following the dictates of another, however great, but only by seeking to answer questions for ourselves. Happy thinking!

 (From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)

Truth Menu

Each new year is a surprise to us. We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird, and when we hear it again it is remembered like a dream, reminding us of a previous state of existence. How happens it that the associations it awakens are always pleasing, never saddening; reminiscences of our sanest hours? The voice of nature is always encouraging. -- Henry David Thoreau