Banff national Park, Calgary, Canada
I was watching the film ‘Into The Wild’ (2007) in which the lead character was talking with an old man about what happiness was. Looking out over the desert he tells the old guy: ‘You’re wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from human relationships. God’s placed it all around us. It’s in everything. It’s in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at those things.’
That messed with me a lot. At first I didn’t know why, but I started to realise it was because I thought that it may be true. I remembered the one time in my life I had seen the Milky Way. Not the anaemic opacity you see in cities or even out in the country in industrialised places, obscured by light pollution, but the actual Milky Way. So many stars that they become indistinguishable as points of light but become instead a luminescent cloud upon the Deep. It was in the deepest darkest Gobi desert, freezing, minus thirty perhaps. But I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I wasn’t hypnotised by it. I just didn’t want to stop looking. Was it because it was beautiful? Well not like a sunset or a girl, but yeah, somehow it was. It filled me with…joy. I recognised something in it, something I could not put into words. What could I ‘recognise’ in the pattern of light across the night sky of billions of stars almost infinitely far away as far as I was concerned? I could not say. Perhaps it was myself I saw, my own creation magnified almost to infinity and painted on the firmament. Was it then myself I saw, for we only recognise that which we know, and how could I know the spiral arms of our own galaxy? Was that vanity? Only if there was no creation, but then at that moment I was utterly sure that there must be a God. For how else to explain this feeling? How could I have evolved to allow the sight of the Milky Way to fill me with joy and awe? How was this an advantage, to stand transfixed so? And why the recognition, why did I need to see this? It made no sense without God.
So that got me thinking: what if the guy in the film was right, what if the joy of life was not in material progress, success or even other people? What if it really was in rocks and sand and the strangely beautiful arrangement of clouds or the shape of a seashell or the look a baby gives it’s mother or a billion other things like that? How would anyone know, shut off as they are from really experiencing or even seeing these things? Maybe they were looking for a treasure not buried where they were digging.
It reminded me of another story I had heard about a note found after the death of Caliph Abdar Rahman III, in his private prayer chamber:
‘I have reigned over fifty years in victory and peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, respected by my allies. Riches, honours, powers and pleasures have waited on my call. Nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting in my years. During this life of wonder I have kept count of the days of happiness which have been given to me. They number fourteen. O man, place not thy confidence in this world.’
That’s messed up. But what if it is true? How can we know? Unless we can define, at least to ourselves, what are joy and happiness, how can we achieve them, or even know them when we have found them? What stops us groping in the dark or someone presenting us a mirage and us chasing after it? Is that not what we are all doing? Can anyone prove that the joy of the world is in those things we chase or are rather told to chase?
This also explains why so many scientists are atheists nowadays: they venerate the physical universe, ultimately the rocks the animals, the DNA, the stars and the subatomic particles, since it is unfashionable to venerate God. The study (which ultimately is observation) of the works of God brings them joy, much like an observer too transfixed by an awesome painting to pay any mind to the possibility of a painter or other works by him.
The Quraan Says:
‘As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are as a mirage in a desert. The thirsty one supposeth it to be water till he cometh unto it and findeth it naught, and findeth, in the place thereof, Allah Who payeth him his due; and Allah is swift at reckoning. Or as darkness on a vast, abysmal sea. There covereth him a wave, above which is a wave, above which is a cloud. Layer upon layer of darkness. When he holdeth out his hand he scarce can see it. And he for whom Allah hath not appointed light, for him there is no light.’