A letter for B: How do I try to reach peacefulness in my life

Diary Ramadhan edisi 29 Ramadhan 1431H

Oleh: Titah Yudhistira

Hi B,

Firstly, thanks so much for your confident in me. I read your email again and again. It is not an easy issue you are writing. But, I really want to share my view. I hope what I’m writing below will not confuse you, or worse, will make you unhappy. If you have comments, further questions, or just any feelings, please share with me. I’m not a perfect human, not a superman (certainly). I don’t also always feel peaceful with my mind. Sometimes I experience sadness, anxiety, etc. too. But, I think I am now getting better and better in making peace with my life. This is what I want to share with you. So, keep in mind, I am not teaching you. In fact, I consider that we are sharing to each other now. If you are still not satisfied with my view, thoughts, explanation, that’s natural. Or if you don’t agree with me on some issues, that’s even more natural. But, be patient, please. Our correspondence about this issue can take months before we both come to satisfaction, because, once again, this is not an easy issue.

Okay, here it starts….

It is the most fearsome fact for mankind that a person is first born, living for 50-100 years on earth, and then will die, decay, become dirt and then completely nothing, and finally be forgotten. So, what is in our live itself then? Fifty or a hundred years of nothingness-at-the-end?

Some very smart academicians have proposed theories about how mankind has been trying to overcome this fear. One of most famous one is the theory on religion. For these intellectuals God was created by humanly mind to make their meaningless live to be meaningful. But unfortunately, they cannot prove also if there is no ‘real God’ outside human mind. For example, if there is no ‘real God’, so how the universe did become exist? Stephen Hawking’s newest book claims that universe doesn’t need God to exist. The law of gravity created it. But, my question is, who created the law of gravity? Did it create/formulate itself? Perhaps I’m not that smart, that’s why my simple mind just finds it (i.e gravity created itself) absurd as well.

Be assured B, the question of whether there is or isn’t God or ‘God’ or whatever you call ‘it’, is an impossible question for our brain to answer. Thousands of years intelectual debates since Moses, Protagoras, until Richard Dawkins still cannot provide the definite and satisfactory answer for this question. And I believe it will never be one. So, in my opinion, this is what exactly you call BELIEF. And you can choose one of the two belief options here: (1) I believe that there is God, and (2) I believe that there is no God. Actually there is another option: (3) who cares?. But, I dismiss the third option since I think it is just for a frustrated, pathetic, ignorant, selfish, lazy, opportunistic, and other relevant negative adjectives, person.

For me, I chose firmly the first choice (1): I DO believe there is God. Why? The answer is simple: because I cannot prove otherwise. One may question my stand: “But you also can’t prove (scientifically or philosopically) that God does exist!”. That’s not a problem for me. I CHOOSE what I BELIEVE. I don’t care whether my believe scientifically or philosopically is right, because I know it is an impossible quest to find the answer. And in a situation where there is no possibly right or wrong answer, every answer is just right. (or wrong, but there’s no knowledgeable right or wrong here. So, everything can be right or wrong, but we will never know…funny isn’t it?). It is only frustration you will get if you pursue a question which has no answer.

{Note: Because I teach probability theory, I can prove that a rational person should choose option (1) based on probability theory. I created a mathematical illustration for this prove like five years ago. I got the inspiration when I was preparing the material for my teaching at that time. Because it involves some quite lengthy assumption, calculation, I put this prove at the end of this letter, to preserve the structure of this email. You can jump now to the end of this email and come to this point again, or just reserve this story for the last reading.}

The solution for overcoming this greatest human fear is very important in order to make us enjoying our life. In other words, to make happines attainable/achievable in our lives. Without this solution, our lives will always like under the shadow of fear’s darkness. Referring to nothingness-at-the-end above, we can easily come to the very depressing question: so why we HAVE TO live in this world after all? Especially if our everyday lives full of despairs: failing the exams, losing money, being dump by our girlfriends/boyfriends, facing the dead of someone we love very much, etc., etc.

And as I’ve said, I am happy that I arrive at the solution. To believe in God. But believe in God is not the complete solution yet. To believe in God itself bring no consequences on the way we should behave and our way of thinking. We need a religion, whether it is a revelation religion (like Jew, Christian, and Islam) or earthly religion (like Buddha, Shinto, Hindu, and many local religions in Africa or Pacific Islands), to guide our lives. It is an obvious fact that you cannot communicate with God in the way you communicate with me, for example. But why we can’t communicate with God just like we communicate with our fellow human? Only God knows the answer. So, don’t try to hard to find the answer because once we believe in God, we have already a strong foundation.

From this foundation, lets move to a bit different direction. In this direction we need to believe that our God LOVES us. Want a proof? Close your eyes, and start counting all good things in your current life. You have a house to live in, you have good parents, you have a sweet sister and a nice brother, you are a goodlooking boy with a good/complete body, you can attend a university, you just had your lunch, you still can breath, you don’t have to wear bandage, and on and on…you can easily come to thousands of good things. To put simply: good things are bad things that are not realized. Of course there are some not nice things happened to you. Your girlfriend dumped you, you cannot buy the nicest camera you’ve always wanted, you’re not as tall as that basketball player, etc.etc. But believe me, the positive list is much more longer than the negative list (and on the negative list there sometimes are things that sound shallow. For example you’re not as tall as that basketball player, but you’re not as short as me as well, which is a good thing).

If God loves us, logically He WANTS us to be happy living in this world. But, we already know the simple fact that He doesn’t communicate directly to us, as in a way we human do. The consequence is there should be some form of communication between God and human. What is it? Another simple fact: there are religions in this world. And these religion (esp. revealed religion Jew, Christian, and Islam) claim that they are based on God sayings. And all these religions claim that they can guide their follower to embrace happiness. Basically, if you follow all the obligations in your religion, then you are promised the happiness after life (that is paradise). But, in fact, if you look closely into your religion (at least what I find in my religion, Islam), most of the teachings are guiding us to experience happiness in life. I can tell about this statement from Islamic point of view in another future letter. But for now, lets follow this logic: if God LOVES us and He HAS MADE us living in this world, it doesn’t make sense He let us without guideance in order to live happily in this world. So, logically, one of the religion must be the true guideance of God to us. Now, the question is: how can I believe that one religion is the true guideance? To put in another words: how can I be sure Islam is the best? or Christian is the best? or Jew is the best? or why not Hindu?

Although this last question is important for your fully peace in mind (confidence), this question is not as easy as answering whether to believe that God exists or does not exist. Living in a country where there are five different religions each with millions of follower, this question struck me as early as when I was 12 years old. At that time I read many books about my own religion Islam, and several books on religion comparison. (I can share you about what I did learn at that time that shaped my strong believe in God and Islam, if you want to. Perhaps on some other letters.) But one thing you should keep in mind: if you want to know a religion, don’t simply look at the surface (eg. terrorist acts, killings in the name of one religion, etc.). You have to learn the original teachings of the religion. But one sure thing (at least what I found and then believe up to now), apart from their dogmas about God, angels, demons, hells, heaven, paradise, prophets, etc. ALL religions teach about good deeds and ethics. To put simply, if your focus now is your happiness in this worldly world, every religion will serve just right: no matter it is Jew, Christian, Islam, Hindu, or Buddha. You can find a Jewish who are very happy with her life, a Christian who are very satisfied with his life, a Muslim who are peaceful with his life (at least you have met me…hehe), etc. In summary: the question which religion is the most right, although still is indeed important, can be answered later without altering you from achieving your happiness and peacefulness. Just don’t push yourself to hard in this stage. If you focus to God, by putting aside religion issue for a while, the truth will reveal itself later. I mean, you can try to attend church regularly again, read your Bible, while focusing on God’s love reflected in Christianity teachings. Later we can start our dialog in the comparison between Christianity and Islam, for example.

Okay, now I assume that you start to (or at least want to) believe that religion (which religion? Keep this question for later) is a way God guiding us in this world. It is important to have such believe: the God guideance. Why? Because this guide will show us the purpose of our life. Life without purpose is worse than life itself. Because life without purpose makes your life felt empty. It is like you go to a city without knowing what to do. Just imagine you are coming to Groningen for a year, but you don’t have any target or goal or task to complete (in your case, it is clear you had a target: finishing your exchange program). After few weeks, you certainly feel bored, or at least feel aimless and start questioning, why should I live in Groningen after all? (even when you have certain goals you can still feel bored in Groningen, just remember our conversation with Alexei in his last day in Groningen). Now, try to change the word Groningen with the word world in the last question and the situation just becomes clear. If you don’t have meaningful (we will talk about ‘meaningful’ later) purpose in this life, it’s a matter of time you start emptiness and confusion.

I think every religion have their own definition on the purpose of life. Some are related to the life after death (which is not my favourite topics) and others are related to our current life (which is I find englightening). In Islam, at least as far as I know, one of our purpose in life is to be God representative in this world. It means as a muslim I have to fulfill my obligations related to the creation of man in the world. For example I supposed to care for, to love, to help, other creatures. Not only my other human fellows, not only living things, but everything God have created in this world. Sound very abstract and nonsense, eh? In fact it is very clear, B. So, why should you study hard? Is it just for a handsome sum of money you can receive from a nice job when you graduate? If that so, you will be very shocked/disappointed when you find youself only get a boring, little paid job. If your answer is because it is part of my purpose of life that God has guide me, then you will be happy with your study, no matter the outcome will be, because you have this very honorable purpose. You can always related your current situation with the ultimate purpose of your life. This is the greatest motivation you can ever have. But how can it be like that? One of the alternative answer is like this. If I study hard, I will have a solid knowledge and skill, not to mention the good grades. When I have a solid knowledge and skill I will be attractive for my future employer. If I am found to be attractive I will get the best job one can ever dream on. If I get this best job (you name it, for example the kind of job you asked me in your previous email), I will enjoy my work and beside I will make a lot of money. If I enjoy my work then I can be positive, cheerful, supportful to people surrounding me which in turn will make them happy, too. With my lots of money, I can make a nice sum of charity so I can help others who are not as lucky as I am. In this way, I can act like ‘a small God’ in caring for others. My life is not for nothing. I have a noble purpose. Others will get benefits from my very existence. I am not like some stones in the middle of a dessert, which whether it exists or not is not important for other human beings or other creatures. My very existence can give maximal benefit to others. And still can I enjoy my life. This is a meaningful life, at least for me.

If you view this very bright and meaningful future picture of yours, I believe that you can start to feel the light in your life. Your task, your study which can be boring, burdensome will become an inspiring activity. Had you once experienced when someone so happy when you did something nice to him or her? In my personal experience, my greatest happiness comes when others are so happy and grateful for things I do for them. For example, when you said you enjoy my summer story, I feel happiness. When you ate a lot of my chicken with oyster sauce, I was sooo happy knowing you enjoy it so much. When I knew my advice to one of my student made him motivated and then finally found a job of his dream, I was sooo happy knowing I could that useful for him. Of course you can make your own list by remembering your own experience. And you can picture your future, in this similar way.

One more thing I should add in this stage of our discussion. Not always all things work as our plan. God has His own way. Sometimes His way is very mysterious. If ‘bad’ things happened (why I wrote ‘bad’, because I believe nothing bad will ever happened to us. We ourself who make things bad. More on this philosophy later perhaps in the future), just believe that God LOVES us. For example, when you were naughty as a child, for example running like crazy on a busy street, your mother got angry to you. And you received her scolding as a bad thing. But actually it was not bad for you. It was, in fact, just for your own good, namely your own safety. You just didn’t know what was good and what was bad, at that time because you’re still a child. But, your mother knew more than you. In this way, you can have a similar view, God KNOWS MUCH MORE about you, about what is best for you.

If something bad happens to you, just make a reflection on yourself whether you have been “naughty” lately. If yes, then rectify your behavior or deeds that is not getting along with God guideance. As an analogy, if you fail your course, it is because you don’t follow your course guidelines. If you still cannot find the answer why this bad thing happen to you (you believe you have been following all God’s guideance), just have a positive thinking to God. If you’re ‘good’, He LOVES you and HE KNOWS THE BEST for you. I call it, to SUBMIT (surrender) to God. In this way, you will always be peaceful. What is more peaceful than to know ‘Somebody’ who are The Most Omnipotent, Who are love you, is IN FACT IS DOING/GIVING SOMETHING BEST for you? By the way, the word Islam (in Arabic) means submission (in English).

I always think, everything happened to me was planned by God. Like now I am writing this letter. I never had a slight idea that one day I would write this such letter to a XXXian guy like you. If you find this letter is helpful, this is just a mysterious way God set for you and me. If you find this letter is not helpful, this is also just a mysterious way God set for you and me. Sound funny or nonsense? (we can discuss about this funny logic in the future). It needs time, B. This letter itself cannot change your way of thinking or the way you see your life in just few seconds.

So, I think it is time for me to stop in order you are not overwhelmed with all of my believes and point of views. We will continue later. Now, you can start pondering this letter. But, as usual, I will give you some summariesJ

In summary, the steps that I followed (and you can try to follow, too):

1. To believe that God does EXIST.

2. To believe that a religion (which religion? Still, I prefer to pending this issue) is a form of God LOVE to us in order to guide us for reaching happiness in this world. It is not a burden for us.

3. To learn and understand what is our purpose in life.

4. To believe that it is a noble purpose and it will make our life meaningful

5. To strive for realizing our purpose in life with our best effort

6. To submit to every outcome, after we have done all of our best and just believe it is actually the best for us, we just don’t know yet, that it is the best.

I have been trying to follow these steps. I have to admit that I’m not fully 100 percents always peaceful and happy. There are times that I feel soooo sad (it was even just as recently as two years ago when I experienced one of my darkest episode in my life; this will be the subject of my other letter in the future).

One last thing for now (like I said, there still could be many more letters in our correspondence), I am very happy that you start questioning your life in this very young age of yours, 22 (well 23 in a few more days…hehe). Can you imagine if the same question only come up when you are, let say, 99 years old, and little you can do with your life at that time? How depressing when you saw your past life at that time? So, I don’t agree with your friend that you should’t think about all of these issues. Although in some aspects your friend were right (that is you shouldn’t be sad, gloomy, depressed, with your questions so that you cannot enjoy your current life), in some other aspects their view can be dangerous. Sooner or latter, in your life you will have to face these questions.

So, be thankful B. Although all of these questions in your mind burden your daily life now, be patient, and patient, and patient. Your last questioning is not funny at all (see Pascal’s quotation below), although we can make it sounds funny in order to cheer up our lives. Once you get the answer to all this question, the enlightenment, it will pay off. Until that time, I am more than happy to be your truly friend to share all your thoughts, worriness, confusion, etc because I always also search for the truth, the ultimate enlightenment. We can together reach this. Just believe!

And now, give your widest smile to yourself! J J J

Your truly friend,

Titah

Appendix:

A Probability Approach to Support My Decision to Opt for the Existence of God

There are two options:

A. We believe in God, which as a consequence (for a Christian or a Muslim like us) we believe also in heaven and hell

B. We do not believe in God, which as a consequence we believe that there’s nothing after death

Which one we should opt?

Assumptions:

Believe in God will limit our freedom in the world. For example: I cannot eat pork, I cannot make love with the girl I just met at the bar, etc. This lost of freedom cost us something.

Assume this activity (eating pork, free sex, etc) can be valued as X euros. Here you can assign X with a number as big as 1 million or even bigger, just name it. But according to economic theory, this X is not infinite. Perhaps, not even bigger than 1000 euros. For example: if you are given two choice during a dinner party, (1) eating pork but not getting 1000 euros or (2) not eating pork but you will get 1000 euro. Which one will you choose? If you choose option (2), certainly the value of X here is not more than 1000 euros (I think unless you’re a millionaire you will stick to option 2, eh?). But, you can argue: But, this situation of I am offered pork will happen not only once during my lifetime. It can happen a thousand times. No problem, let generously assume it happens 1 million times, then in total the cost of not eating pork here is 1 million x 1000 = 1 billion euros, which is still a finite number. Even if you boldly say: 1000 euros is nothing. I demand 1 million euros for me in order not eating pork tonight. Okay, no problem. The cost of not eating pork for you whole life here will be: 1 million x 1 million = 1 trillion euros, which is bigger than your country’s government spending budget, I think. BUT, STILL it is a FINITE number.

So, in conclusion, X, the cost, however big it is, is not unlimited. It is not infinite.

Next, every religion believe that you will live forever, for eternity, in heaven. If you are in heaven then you can eat whatever you like there. Say, you like cheese. How much a portion of cheese cost. Let say, it is only 1 euro. But, how many times you can eat cheese when you are in heaven? Because we wil live in heaven for eternity, you can eat cheese in an INFINITE number of times. So, how much benefit you will get as long you are in heaven? It is 1 euro x infinite = INFINITE euros. So, the potential pay-off of believing life in heaven is infinite positive.

If you’re not believe in God and when you’re dead it turns out there is God (of course, you will shout your loudest F*** first!), according to religion dogmas you will enter hell for eternity. Here, the pay-off will be infinite negative (I don’t want to give example of life in hell, but I think how we come to infinite negative is clear).

Now, the real question. What is the probability that there is a life after death in heaven? You CANNOT assign 0 here for the probability, because 0 will mean it is ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN there will be no life after death. But who, a living human, can absolutely be certain of this because he/she is just supported by indisputable scientific, empirical fact? NO ONE. Only death people who can answer this. But, so far, we cannot make death people back from their death to tell us whether there’s life after death. Let’s say you are very very very skeptical about life after death, i.e you don’t believe in heaven or hell. Then you will assign the probability that there’s life after death as small as possible, let say: 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 (but remember, you can’t set it absolute zero, because not absolute certainty here).

Probability of you are now living in this world is 1, because I can ABSOLUTELY BE CERTAIN you are now living in this world (if not, I correspondence with a what, B? A ghost?)

So, what is your expected cost and payoff as the consequences of your choice? In probability theory, expectation is the product of probability an event will happen times the potential cost/pay-off.

Expectation = probability x potential cost/pay-off

If you choose option A (believing there will be life after death, i.e heaven):

Expectation of cost = probability living in world x potential cost

= 1 x 1 trillion euros

= 1 trillion euros

= finite cost

Expectation pay-off = probability living in heaven x potention pay-off

= 0.0000000000000000000001 x infinite

= infinite positive reward

If you choose option B

Expectation of cost = probability living in world x potential cost

= 1 x 0 (because you do whatever, no cost)

= 0 = finite cost

Expectation pay-off = probability living in heaven x potention pay-off

= 0 (because no heaven for unbeliever) x infinite

= 0 = finite reward

We are just assuming there’s no hell. If we include hell, then the latter expectation pay-off will be:

Expectation pay-off = probability living in hell x potention pay-off

= 0.00000000000000000000001 x infinite negative

= infinite negative

Conclusion:

If you choose to believe in life after death (option A), your expected cost of living in this world is FINITE but your expected pay-off is INFINITE POSITIVE.

If you choose not to believe in life after death (option B), your expected cost of living in this world is ZERO, but your expected pay-off is INFINITE NEGATIVE.

A rational person, consequently will choose option A (because it is a domination solution, a term in decision theory): to believe in life after death, i.e to believe in God.

Note:

Amazingly (for me), last year when reading “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong, I found this very same conclusion has already proposed by Blaise Pascal like 400 years ago. I hadn’t read about Pascal conclusion at the time when I created this reasoning for myself like 5 years ago (I haven’t got guts to tell my students in probability class this example, but I am planning to on my next class). So, for me personally, I regard this as an inspiration from God for Pascal and me (and perhaps for some other persons who came to the same conclusion independently of each other).

Here is how Pascal put in words his thoughts:

‘We are incapable of knowing either what [God] is or whether he is … Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager?’ (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 1688)

This gamble is not entirely irrational, however. To opt for God is an all-win solution. In choosing to believe in God, Pascal continued, the risk is finite but the gain infinite. (Karen Armstrong, A History of God, 1993)

You can read also about “Pascal wager” in Wikipedia.

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