Things are just fine on a coral reef as long as certain conditions are met. Begin to tamper with the conditions and you disrupt life on the coral reef. Change the water temperature, over time, for instance, say two degrees, and things are no longer fine on the coral reef. But, after a period of adjustment, with some life forms disappearing, and others appearing, things settle back into a convenient arrangement and all is once again just fine on the coral reef.
But, change the ocean currents, or alter the temperature a bit more, or pollute the water past its ability to sufficiently dilute the pollution, and you will soon destroy all life on the coral reef, and kill the reef itself. Things are “fine” within a narrow range of possibilities. Horse riding can be “fine” as long as you don’t put a burr under the saddle. It can be a very small burr and still ruin things on the ride. A drop of water is as next to nothing as something tangible can be, but a steady drop of water over time becomes Chinese Water Torture, and a trickle of water can cut a path through rocky ground. It doesn’t take nearly that much or that long to make us crazy.
Don’t think you can tolerate crazy-making conditions. Don’t think you can be fine in the extended presence of pathology. Move out of its way. A coral reef has to sit there and take whatever happens to it. You can leave the room, or the relationship, or the job, or the country. It’s beginning to look as though we should leave the country.
How bad can it get? What is with the madness? How can we bring sanity to bear? What can you do when leadership is so completely cut-off from the realities of the impact of its leading?
The country seems to be surviving as well as it is on the strength of psychotherapy, medication, distraction, diversion, and denial. We are adjusting ourselves to pathology like the frog in the pot. What else can we do? The coral reef is suffocating. Life there struggles to go on. But the barges dumping the pollution keep coming.
Things need to change on so many levels that it can easily seem as though we are a coral reef up against an endless stream of barges. Nothing we can think of doing appears to have any chance of making a difference. Any action we imagine either appears to be impossible or has consequences that are as intolerable as the conditions we are trying to transform. Making things better here, makes things worse there.
In other words, there is a price to be paid for transforming the world. And, we don’t like to talk about prices to be paid. We stay in abusive, toxic, soul-destroying, life-threatening, relationships because we are afraid of leaving. We die because we are afraid of paying the price required to be alive. We tell ourselves we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and settle too easily for being damned without a fight. If we are going to die, we should at least die in the service of life.
Well. That has a nice sound to it, but we have no idea what it means. If we were to begin living today in the service of life, what would we do exactly? Where, and how, do we begin? Well, here’s a suggestion: Let’s call it the concerted effort of unwavering gestures. Let’s commit ourselves to doing what is good, or just what appears to be good, whether it does any good or not.
Begin by thinking through what it means for your life to be “just fine.” What are the essential minimum requirements of “just fine”? How much about your life is excessive? How much is over-indulgence? How much can you actually get along “just fine” without? Answering these questions puts some distance between ourselves and the “buy, spend, amass, and consume” mentality that is the foundation of the economy and the culture. Which, of course, begins to shake those foundations. And, gives rise to the haunting threat: “If you don’t buy, spend, amass and consume, you will destroy the economy and the culture, and then where will you be?” Don’t buy it. Don’t buy that buying more is the whole basis of life, and that life will end if we quit buying more than we can begin to have any use for.
Focus on what your true needs are and meet those needs. Find the line between necessary and excessive, and draw it. Know what is wasteful, extravagant. Understand clearly what is required for things to be “just fine.” Limit yourself to living with the things you need to be fully, completely, joyfully alive. It doesn’t take as much as the culture would have us believe.
And, do all the small things you know to do, and probably haven’t done because you ask “What difference would it really make?” Stop driving with the air-conditioner on, and combine several trips into one. Change your light bulbs to energy efficient fluorescents and cut off the lights when you leave the room. These types of lists are everywhere. Implement the suggestions.
Write letters and emails to your congressmen. Propose sanity, oppose madness. Tell them to do what they can to stop clearing the rain forests and to start reducing energy consumption. Get on the band wagon. Take excess personally. Pay the price of refusing to live well beyond the limits of what it takes for things to be “just fine.” It doesn’t take long to find what’s wrong with this picture. “The price” is not something we are likely to pay.
There is a reason things are the way they are. It’s easier that way. We have all taken the path of least resistance to where we are today. That is true with us personally and collectively. When things became uncomfortable, we found the easy door. All the conveniences of life that are killing us were created by a culture fixated on easy living. Walking through the Easy Door, we stepped into a world we can’t live in. We want to live, but we don’t want it to be hard.
We can have anything we want if we don’t mind doing what it takes to have it. We always blink and fold when the ante goes up. We like the idea of clean air and water, but we aren’t willing to give up much to have it. We like the idea of a community, but when that means listening to people who have nothing to say, we think maybe community is over-blown. We like the idea of shared responsibility for the work that needs to be done, but the same people end up doing everything. We start down the road that leads to change, but then realize we don’t want things to be all that different.
We want things to be the way they are, only better. Cheaper gas, cleaner air and water, improved relationships among all people, peace, justice, and joy all around—without any limits, restrictions, or impositions on us and the way we live our lives. Who are we kidding?
We want our spirituality to be a feel-good boost, propelling us along the way of our own choosing to goals we find attractive in a life that never asks more of us than we feel like giving. Who are we kidding?
We want a life of complete freedom, without restraint or restriction. We want to follow our heart wherever it leads, never mind that it always seems to lead away from hard and to easy. Who are we kidding?
Look up the best-selling books on spirituality over the last twenty-five years. How many have to do with an effortless path to prosperity, wealth, joy and happiness? Titles like The Prayer of Jabez, How To Manifest Your Destiny, A Course In Miracles, The Purpose-Driven Life (the purpose of which is to have it made in this life and in the life to come), and The Secret come quickly to mind. How many of the best sellers have to do with sacrifice and self-discipline, commitment, dedication, surrender, and service? No titles come to mind. Who are we kidding?
We want to use spirituality for our own ends. When it begins to pinch, we will find a different pair of shoes. How many different approaches to spirituality will we go through, looking for one that doesn’t pinch? How spiritual can we be without doing things we don’t want to do, things we don’t feel like doing? Who are we kidding?
There are ten thousand paths to God. We must honor the path each one of us is on. And, we must honor our own path, and not jump from path to path when the one we are on begins to ask hard things of us.
The Buddha had a rice bowl. Gandhi wore the same strange outfit every day. Jesus died with nothing to his name. The Dali Lama has one pair of sandals. And, Yoda lived in a hole in the ground. Exactly how spiritual do you want to be? When the spiritual path and the path of least resistance fork and go their separate ways, say about two steps into the journey, which one are you going to choose? How hard are you willing for the spiritual life to be?
The Dali Lama does not participate in life the way we do. Neither did the Christ, nor the Buddha. We cannot live the way we live and live the life of the Dali Lama, the Christ, and the Buddha. Being the Dali Lama, the Christ, and the Buddha—or, just being their disciples—requires us to live in certain ways, and to not live in certain other ways. The American Way of Life stands between us and the realization of the spiritual quest. Something has to go. We cannot have it all. The American Dream is a nightmare that is destroying the world. There is a price to be paid for having a world we all can live in. We give up “this” to get “that,” get it? The happy fantasy of a lifestyle that consists of boundless consumption and unlimited freedom cannot tolerate the reality of waking up to the truth of how things are. We want all that we can want and heaven, too. Who are we kidding?
The spiritual journey is nothing more than growing up, recognizing what the deal is, and doing what needs to be done. And, growing up “is so very hard to do.”