Our work is to harmonize the discord within. And, without. Estrangement, disruption, chaos, instability, tension, stress, anxiety, fear, anger, depression, war are all the result of unmanageable, and sometimes unacknowledged, conflict. We have to do a better job of recognizing, addressing, and integrating the “contraries” at work in our lives, imperiling our lives. Friedrich Hegel’s structure of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis is a way of describing sociological and political shifts, or the transformation of thought through contradiction, engagement, and integration, and it is a strategy for consciously easing the conflicts in our own lives.
We are often aware of the “thesis/antithesis” struggles which enfold us. We can describe the sources of stress and tension in our lives. We can say, “On the one hand, this, and on the other hand, that. And, then there is that over there.” We can say “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” We can identify what is happening that we don’t want to happen, or what is not happening that we do want to happen.” But, we have a hard time figuring out what to do about it. We “pick sides,” and try to force the issue, and war results, with a winner and a loser, and the conflict goes underground, to spring up again because it was never resolved. “Synthesis” escapes us. Which leaves us with escape and denial as our remaining options.
Our plan for dealing with conflict is to get away from it. Withdraw. Hide. Move. Say “It ain’t so!” And, there are times when bailing out is all that is left for us to do, when leaving actually works. But, that is a rare event, and when the conflict is within, when it is our own failures, and insufficiencies, and deficits and excesses that we cannot bear, well, then escape becomes impossible. Then we drink too much, and fail ourselves again, so we have to drink too much some more. It would be to our distinct and everlasting advantage to take up the work of synthesis in a consciously mindful and deliberate way. But, that doesn’t mean we DO anything! Except bear the pain of the tension within and without, and make the conflict painfully conscious, and wait to see what happens!
We have to become deeply aware of all aspects of the discordant realities shaping the conflicts which characterize our lives. The way to do the work of synthesis is to bring our conflicts to the table, and talk. But it has to be a special kind of talk. It has to be honest talk, authentic conversation, intimate, vulnerable, real and true. We can’t just bang our shoes on the table and demand to have our way. We do have to say what we want, of course, but, more than that, we have to say why we want it, what the ground of the want is, and what we know about it, and be open to the possibility that what we want is not what is needed—that it is not in the best interest of all concerned. In this, we are seeking the center, the foundation, the core of the conflict. We are speaking for the want at the heart of the matter, not just of it. We are saying where it comes from and who its parents are. We are trying to get to the bottom of things. To the center.
Shift happens at the level of the heart. When we are heard all the way to the bottom of what we have to say, things change. And, the change is as much within as it is without. The trick is time. None of this is instantaneous. Yeast in the dough, you know. You work the yeast into the dough and stand back. Step aside. Get out of the way. Leave it alone. Transformation happens over time. In its own time. And, in its own way.
We cannot predict the practical outcome of integration, of integrity. We do not know what will happen when the discordant realities begin to harmonize. A shift will happen. And, the drift will be toward the good. But the result will likely not be what we have in mind. The work of integration is no way to get what we want.
The work of integration and integrity takes us beyond the jurisdiction of manipulation and control. One of the reasons we have to do the work of integration and integrity is that we have manipulated and controlled ourselves, and the environment, and the world into contorted, distorted, misshapen monsters by trying to achieve what we want in the world. By trying to have our way, guard our interests, and defend our “national security,” which is, essentially whatever those in power think is good for business, we create a world in which no one can live. As we celebrate our birthday as a nation, we would do well to reflect on the drift from “liberty and justice for all” to “rights and privileges for the well-to-do” and whatever is left over for everyone else. Whose good is served by the good we serve? Increasingly, it is the good of the few at the expense of the many. Not what Jesus, or the framers of the Constitution, had in mind.
What we want is not always what is needed, either on a personal or corporate or national level. We can want what we have no business having. There is a movement underfoot these days which disguises itself as spirituality whose selling point is the secret to having what you want. How to make your dreams come true. How to manifest your destiny. How to achieve your unlimited potential (never mind the contradiction in terms). How to have it made. It’s a scam, no matter how it is presented. We are in the mess we are in by trying to have what we want, and we think we can want our way out of the mess.
We can only want our way into a bigger mess, because we only know what we want. We do not know what we should want, what we ought to want. We do not know what TO want. We only know what we DO want. And, even if we did know what we should want, we cannot make ourselves want it. We can only want what we want. We cannot want what we don’t want, even though that is often exactly what we need. If someone comes along promising to reveal to you the secret of how to want what is truly needed and do it, go with them wherever they lead you, and pay them whatever they ask, because that is the work of integration and integrity. And THAT is spirituality at its very best.
Of course, we aren’t likely to like what we should want. We aren’t likely to embrace what is needed. At least, not initially. What is needed takes some getting used to. We have to adjust ourselves to what has need of us. Our first response is to say, “What do you mean, ‘Go to Egypt’?” “What do you mean, ‘Go to Nineveh’?” “Take Aaron in stead.” “I’m only a lad.” “No Lord! Not you!” It takes a while to get ourselves wrapped around and in favor of what needs to be done.
That’s because what needs to be done isn’t generally what we want to do. Spiritual development isn’t about development. It is about conversion, alteration, renovation, revolution, reformation. It isn’t about trying harder, or giving 10 percent to the poor and needy and doing what we want with the remaining 90 percent. It is about changing what we want. It is about transformation at the level of the heart. And the heart is the last thing to go.
The work of harmonizing the discord within and without is not about rearranging the surface elements of our lives, taking down the hill and putting up the shopping center and the parking lot, and those nice mercury vapor lights. We are altering the mix at the level of the heart. We are redesigning the basic structure of the way things are. We are creating a brand new world with a revolution at the very center of civilization—by shifting perspective, revising ideas of what is important, and changing how things are done. In other words, we are doing what Jesus did.
Jesus changed how things were done at the level of the foundations. “Might makes right.” How’s that for capturing the present orientation of civilization? Jesus said that’s wrong, and went about doing what was right in defiance of the “might” of his day. Jesus did not get his ducks in a row, and have everyone on board, and get permission from those in authority, and make sure no one would get their feelings hurt or have their nose out of joint before he socialized with the outcasts, ate with the prostitutes and tax collectors, touched the untouchables, loved the unloveables, lived with the people as God would live with the people, and declared his way to be exemplary of the Kingdom of God. And, he turned on their ear, the political, and social, and religious systems of his day. His simple actions transformed civilization at the level of the heart.
You couldn’t do it the way Jesus did it and maintain a social/cultural/political/religious order based on patriarchy. Or sexism. Or racism. Or Good-Ole-Boy-ism. Or Might-Makes-Right-ism. Or Profit-At-Any-Price-ism. If you do it the way Jesus did it, you turn everything upside down, and start over. It’s all right there in the Sermon on the Mount.
If you want a Manifesto for the Transformation of Things at the Level of the Heart, you only have to turn to the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and read the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake.” How many politicians or Enron executives or Sunday school teachers or preachers are standing in line to be blessed because of their quest for righteousness?
Kurt Vonnegut raises the question in his latest, and perhaps last, book, A Man Without A Country. There, he wonders why the fascination with placing the Ten Commandments in the court houses and school rooms of the land. “Why not the Beatitudes?”, he asks. Well, it’s clear that we can’t make the Beatitudes the focus of our lives and get what we want. But the fantasy is that if we keep the Ten Commandments we will be given what we want. That’s the sickness at the heart of Christianity as we have commandeered it, the culture, and civilization. What we want cannot save us. Because we want the wrong things.
The way out of the mess is the way of sitting down and listening with mindful, accepting, loving, attentive awareness to the opposites within and without. It is the way of listening to the discordant realities, and allowing them to find their own way to resolution, and integration and the creation of a new perspective, a new way of doing things, and a brand new world.