by Ross Bishop
Some people view our present spate of problems as the harbinger of The Four Horsemen predicted by St. John in Revelations. Whether or not that is true, each of these crises are serious. They have consequences that are already raising serious hell with the foundations of our culture and if we do not give them their due, the results will be catastrophic.
Crises always come for a reason and when four them come at the same time you can bet that there is more going than appears on the surface! But we get so focused on the big picture that we usually miss the opportunities for personal growth that each always presents. Taking our focus off the social implications of what is going on, I would like to look at the personal implications for spiritual growth and development. Let’s look out at the landscape and see what we can find:
Obviously your survival and that of your loved ones is, of course, essential. But with this disease, you can’t do that by yourself. You need the compassion of other people to keep the virus from spreading to you and your loved ones.
Although the rest of the world has accepted masking and social distancing, some parts of America are resisting this request like it was a constitutional crisis! These same people who wear seat belts, obey traffic laws and accept “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” turn fanatical when asked to wear a mask.
These people put the elderly and the already compromised at great risk. The compromised and the elderly are the most vulnerable and therefore most in need of our care and compassion. So the challenge presented by this crisis is to find compassion for, and actually participate in, the health of people we will probably never meet.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
In the 1960’s James Baldwin wrote about the “flaw” in American democracy. He pointed out the hypocrisy of a country founded by male, white slave owners who declared “All men are created equal,” at the same time denying that equality to not only Blacks but native Americans and virtually all minorities and women! Baldwin (and others) found this to be
incredibly hypocritical. Furthering that hypocrisy was to legally emancipate minorities, but then to not enforce those laws, effectively denying these people the rights they had been promised.
Fifty years ago, in 1968, The Kerner Commission investigated the sources of racial disparity in America, and accurately identified the sources of racial problems as poor education, few jobs, red line housing discrimination, economic disparity, poor medical care, police violence, gangs and the vestiges of Jim Crow and white supremacy. The country wasn’t willing to provide meaningful solutions to the problems that The Kerner Commission identified. Attempts to correct some of the issues were made, but they were mostly cosmetic. And we didn’t want to hear it!
Recently Jane Elliot asked a group, “I want every white person who would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society to stand up.” No one stood up. She repeated the request. Same response. She continued, “That says very plainly that you know what is happening. You know you don’t want it for yourself. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or allow that to happen for others.”
Slavery has a long history in the west. Five thousand years ago, slaves built the Egyptian pyramids. The roads and aqueducts connecting the far reaches of the Roman Empire were built by slaves. The plantations and mines that fueled the British Empire were driven by slave labor. Upper middle class families in America and Europe would’ve had very different lives were it not for slave butlers, cooks, housekeepers and nannies. In the American south, the cotton and tobacco plantations could not have functioned without slave labor. The great houses of American government, The Capital Building and The White House, were built by slaves.
Institutionalized racism and sexism continues today whether in schools, housing, policing, voting, the criminal justice system, the military, the arts, employment, business and housing loans, etc. This all is lodged in white people’s attitudes, and it is going be our responsibility, not Black or minority peoples, to fix the problem. The same holds true for women’s rights.
But this is not passive compassion. It is going require the active participation by white society to change hundreds of years of repression and segregation, especially in the American South, where de facto segregation is a way of life. So here we are 400 years later, with BLM demonstrations! And once again, our compassion for our fellow beings is being held up for our consideration and our challenge is to actively participate in someone else’s freedom.
Although more subtle than COVID, the ultimate impact of global warming could be much more devastating. And by the time the problem reaches public awareness, it will likely be too late. The crisis calls into question our compassion, not just for other humans, but for the entire planet – the animals and plants – the whole ecosystem. Today, Australia has burned, California and Oregon are on fire after 18 of the 19 hottest summers on record and the South is being assaulted by record storms and hurricanes.
And the world is struggling without our leadership. According to a sweeping United Nations report issued just several weeks ago, “ . . . the world is failing to address a catastrophic biodiversity collapse that not only threatens to wipe out beloved species and invaluable genetic diversity, but endangers humanity’s food supply, health and security . .”
Global warming also calls into question our compassion for those who are yet not born. There is an ancient Greek proverb that goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”
This is another situation that will require active participation. Passing laws will help, but if we are to really turn this one around, it is going to require effort by everyone. I am reminded of a visit to Swiss villages where every yard had been converted into a family vegetable garden. No useless manicured lawns for them! The actions that we take will determine the future of humankind.
Although not usually grouped with the previous three, the fabric of Horatio Alger’s impoverished boys who rose from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage and honesty is wearing pretty thin today. In 1970 Milton Friedman published his now famous thesis, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” It was a call to arms for greed and unfettered free-market capitalism. It was the most consequential economic idea of the latter part of the 20th century.
Fifty years later, Friedman’s philosophy continues to stoke debate among business leaders and policymakers – although today some are rebuking his view as having led to a generation of greedy, profit seeking companies at the expense of society, wrecking the domestic economy and exacerbating economic and social inequality. And the general public is coming to realize that contrary to Friedman’s theories, wealth does not trickle down, and that capitalism is little more than a modern form of indentured servitude. The system obliges the millions who toil – largely at subsistence wages – to create more wealth for the billionaires at the top.
Woody Harrelson wrote, “We live in a completely corrupted world where every government is just a bunch of businessmen working for a bigger bunch of businessmen and none of them give a shot about the people. The sad fact is that no one knows how to change it, because no one knows how to take on the corporations.” The economic crisis threatens the very foundations of society. Changes in laws will help, but it is going to take a seismic shift in society to make meaningful change – greed is incredibly seductive! This situation again calls into question our compassion for those who toil in the shadows.
WHAT TO DO?
OK, so the theme that runs through all these situations is the need for compassion – a lot of compassion. Two thousand years ago Jesus offered us a new commandment when he admonished us to “Love one another as I have loved you.” And that’s not the first time we have heard that maxim. Compassion is the basis for ahimsa, a core virtue in Hindu philosophy. According to Hindus, Gautama Buddha, the embodiment of compassion, was Vishnu’s (the god of compassion) most recent incarnation.
My point is that for thousands of years before Christ, spiritual teachers of all kinds have encouraged us to “Love one another.” And although great strides have been made in civil and social laws and morays and environmental protection, they have also been woefully inadequate measures. Today we have the opportunity to make significant steps to correct those deficiencies.
But this is not compassion in the traditional sense, what is being asked of us is an active, mobilizing, involved compassion. Each of these situations is festering and put simply, if we greet them as we have with past situations, we are going to suffer – and badly!
The real challenge presented by these situations is for you to find an active compassion – of the kind that we tried to finding during the anti-Viet Nam war protests of the 60’s. Remember “flower power?”
COVID will spread unless WE actively promote masking and social distancing. BLM isn’t going to change unless WE do something about the inequities in our social system. Global warming is already sneaking up on us, and if we sit idly by we or our offspring are going to suffer inconsolably. If we do not alter corporate society uncontrolled greed will continue to tear our social fabric apart.
The first thing people turn to in these situations is usually the legal system. And new laws and regulations will help, but they will not be enough. The change necessary will have to come from each of us stepping up to do our part. Only a concerted change in social consciousness can stop COVID, end 4 centuries of racism and prejudice and curb unmitigated greed. Certainly new laws will help change the corporations and global warming is going to be dependent on new regulations, but the foundation for these changes is still an active and committed populace.
Can we do it? Will we? I honestly don’t know. Americans have become pretty complacent. I came of age in the 60’s, and the country is a lot different than it was when we stood up against The War in Viet Nam. But, the thing is in regard to any of these crises: We really don’t have any choice! If we do not turn things around, any one of these situations has the potential to wreck our way of life, disrupt the foundations of our society and otherwise rain total hell on what was once a great civilization.
We are being asked to make fundamental changes, to actively find compassion for people we will never know, and to actively intercede in their lives by our choices. This challenge has always been before us, but it has never been made so clear.
And although this involves others, it is really about us and how we will respond to a call for more engaged compassion.
Sitting on the couch isn’t going do it and just making contributions to worthy causes isn’t going do it either! Our spiritual growth will be determined by our response. The changes asked of us are an important dimension of our individual spiritual development. It is why we have come to earth at this time!
“The best thing I ever did was to start digging deep and asking myself why I’m the way I am and do things the way I do. It takes a lot of work and intentionality, but getting to know yourself on a deeper level will help you thrive and the rest of us survive.”Author Unknown
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