(Published in the Arizona Daily Star, June 4, 2023)
In the wonderful fantasy movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion and Dorothy are all seeking something they believe is lacking: a brain, a heart, courage and the way back home. While they lacked the terminology to discuss their despair as “existential angst,” their predicament is certainly not rare in spiritual literature.
In the Hindu classic, “The Bhagavad Gita,” the hero, Arjuna, is forlorn at the prospect of going into battle against enemies who are all relatives. Anticipating so much death and destruction, he is tempted to turn away. Only when Krishna reminds him that he is a warrior and that he must fulfill his destiny does Arjuna fight in this terrible war—a war that he wins, though at the end everyone dies anyway as that is the way of all flesh. Similarly, in the Biblical Book of Genesis, Jacob—someone of notoriously weak character who is deceptive and manipulative—is only blessed as the patriarch “Israel” after wrestling with an unknown being in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.
In Christianity, one interpretations of the Crucifixion is that the Resurrection shows that the individual must not identify with the physical body in order to attain heaven. “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) The Buddha, too, taught that, to achieve Nirvana, one must recognize the impermanence of all existence and cease all attachments to that which cannot last. In Zen, the point is exquisitely made with the statement: “Be dead. Be thoroughly, absolutely dead. Then do as you like. All will be well.”
Having said that, it must be elmpasized that suicide is not the answer. It is no accident that the French existentialist, Albert Camus, concluded from his atheism that “Suicide is the only real philosophical question.” Once one acknowledges that there is a spiritual realm—and who can observe the myriad wonders of the physical universe and the countless examples of compassion and self-sacrifice on a daily basis doubt that there must be “Something” that is the “Source” of all of it—one realizes that one is not an accidental quirk of an arbitrary reality. To quote from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As it turns out (spoiler alert), the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion and Dorothy all meet the various challenges posed to them by the Wizard of Oz—only to find that what they were looking for was actually theirs all along. Dorothy had to see that she may not have been in Kansas anymore, but in her heart of hearts she had to learn that, in fact, “there is no place like home.” The Muslim poet, Rumi, could have told them all from the start—and all of us who look for security in our possessions, jobs, status and infinite diversions–”Why do you remain in prison with the keys in your hands? You were born with wings. Why do you insist on crawling through life?” Why, indeed.