Loolwa Khazzoom: In our last interview, you said there is no spiritual meaning behind chronic pain. Please elaborate.
Brad Lemley: I’m a total hard-head about that stuff, and my head gets harder about it every year that goes by. I really believe that, as difficult as it is for people to get their minds around, there’s a lot of random stuff that happens in the world.In fact, in a way, everything is fundamentally random.
By nature, human beings recognize patterns, then go on to invest meaning in them, when those patterns have no intrinsic meaning. It’s a hard thing, kind of an existential island to find yourself on, to say that possibly everything that happens is essentially meaningless – that it’s not held up against some invisible standard that we don’t comprehend, that maybe there isn’t any such standard at all. But I think that kind of understanding is the path to sanity, the way to make sense of things.
I really feel that the randomness of life is not given the credit that is due. People need to stop and think about the fact that stuff just happens and probably means nothing at all. The downside is that maybe there’s not a mom or a dad behind the scenes who will step in at the last minute and save you. The upside is you get to be a complete grownup and run your own life. That’s the thing that I really like about it.
LK: To play devil’s advocate, what would you say to someone who would reply, “No, there’s definitely order in the universe, because the sun comes up, then the moon comes up, and all these particles and atoms are organized in a very particular way. Everything has an order, a pattern, a reason, and we just aren’t smart enough to understand it.”
BL: That may be true. I think that atheists miss the boat too. Atheism — hard-headed atheism — requires an omniscient perspective as well. The point is I think we have to be really, really intellectually honest about what we know and what we don’t know, and not entertain ourselves with whatever fantasy our culture is feeding us.
The fact that they are fantasies, cultural creations, is evidenced in the fact that there are so many different ideas that contradict each other. I don’t pretend to know the absolute, but that’s kind of the point. As Richard Dawkins says, religion and spirituality trivialize the absolute. If there is an ultimate truth behind it all, it is almost certainly far more vast and complex and amazing than any story that anybody’s ever been able to make up.
LK: Did your ideas about spiritually get shaped through your experience of living with chronic pain?
BL: To some small extent it was my own struggle with pain. But more importantly, I’ve never had the sense that if I’m going through something, my life is the ultimate measure of reality. Even when I was in relatively bad pain, I always had an awareness that there were a lot of people across the world who were worse off than I was.
This is one of the things that used to bug me about the idea of praying for relief. If I were G-d, why would I not help some kid who was starving to death in Africa, as opposed to healing this upper middle-class journalist in America? It didn’t make any sense to me: Why I should be singled out for special treatment?
LK: What would you say to people who look back on their lives and find that their experience of pain led them to something greater — in turn leaving the impression that all along, the universal plan was simply bring them to a certain point?
BL: Unless you were raised in a bubble, by the time you get to be my age, you’ve experienced some difficulty and tragedy. You’ve either learned from it or regressed as a result of it. I think that there’s an evolutionary component to that; I don’t think that it’s the result of a master plan. I think that we’re just hard-wired to look back at our experiences and take the value from them. That’s powerful survival stuff. If you’re a successful human being, you take all the things that have happened to you, learn from them, and try to do better each day.
A lot of spirituality, in my experience, is just another layer of judgment to stick on top of all the other legal, personal, and biological judgments we make. It’s just one more set of filters through which everything has to pass. By not giving reasons for everything, we can actually begin to appreciate things as they are. To this end, I find myself appreciating stuff that used to wig me out — appreciating how something that feels awful might not be such a bad thing after all, in a kind of an odd way. It’s sort of a new phase in my life. I’m still not really used to it, but that’s where I’m at now.
Brad Lemley is the editorial director of DrWeil.com, Andrew Weil’s website. Previously, Brad worked as a television reporter and anchor, a radio reporter, and a freelance writer for The Washington Post, Life, Discover, and other leading periodicals, and he co-authored two books, including It’s Not What Happens to You, It’s What You Do about It. In his spare time, Brad is a woodworker, house renovator, and dedicated fitness enthusiast.