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The Illusion Of Punishment
What Western spirituality says is paradoxicalrather than avoiding these hardships, it asks you to embrace them. It taught the counter-intuitive response that willing acceptance of these burdens was the only way to a good, full life, the only way to inner peace. Bending your head in obedience, it will be raised up strong, brave, indomitable, and wise. Now let me go through the list of penalties from this perspective.
About labor, the religious voice says that work is the only avenue to genuine self-respect. Work develops independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness. Work itself is a value, above a paycheck, above praise, above accomplishment. Work produces a spiritual reward unknown to the reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychologists like B.F. Skinner, but if you tackle it gladly, without resentment or avoidance, whether youre digging a ditch or building a skyscraper, youll find the key to yourself in work. If the secular aversion to work is a thing to be rationalized as schools do, requiring only minimal effort from children, a horrifying problem is created for our entire society, one that thus far has proven incurable. I refer to the psychological, social, and spiritual anxieties that arise when people have no useful work to do. Phony work, no matter how well paid or praised, causes such great emotional distortions that the major efforts of our civilization will soon go into solving them, with no hint of any answer in sight.
In the economy we have allowed to evolve, the real political dilemma everywhere is keeping people occupied. Jobs have to be invented by government agencies and corporations. Both employ millions and millions of people for which they have no real use. Its an inside secret among top-echelon management that should you need to cause a rise in stock value, this can be engineered by eliminating thousands of "useless" jobs; that is done regularly and, I would presume, cynically.
Young men and women during their brightest, most energetic years are kept from working or from being a part of the general society. This is done to keep them from aggravating this delicate work situation, either by working too eagerly, as kids are prone to do, or by inventing their own work, which could cause shocks throughout the economy. This violation of the injunction to work, which Western spirituality imposed, has backed us into a corner from which no authority has any idea how to extricate us. We cannot afford to let too many children really learn to work, as Amish children do, for fear they will discover its great secret: work isnt a curse, but a salvation.
About the second penalty, pain, Western spirituality has regarded pain as a friend because it forces attention off things of this world and puts it squarely back on the center of the universe, yourself. Pain and distress in all forms are ways we learn self-control (among other valuable lessons), but the siren call of sensuality lures us to court physical satisfactions and to despise pain as a spoiler of pleasure. Western spirituality teaches that pain is a road to self-knowledge, self-knowledge a road to trusting yourself. Without trust, you cant like yourself; without liking yourself, how can you feel capable of giving love?
About the third penalty, good and evil, Western spirituality demands you write your own script through the world. In a spiritual being, everything is morally charged, nothing neutral. Choosing is a daily burden, but one which makes literally everything a big deal.
I heard second hand, recently, about a woman who said to her mother about an affair she was conducting openly, despite the protest of her husband and in full knowledge of her six-year-old daughter, "Its no big deal." Thats what she said to her mother. But if infidelity, divorce, and the shattering of innocence in a child isnt a big deal, then what could ever be? By intensifying our moral sense, we constantly feel the exhilaration of being alive in a universe where everything is a big deal.
To have much of a life, you must bring as many choices as you can out of preprogrammed mode and under the conscious command of your will. The bigger the life you seek, the less anything can be made automatic, as if you were only a piece of machinery. And because every choice has moral dimension, it will incline toward one or the other pole of that classic dichotomy: good and evil.
Despite extenuating circumstancesand they are legionthe accumulating record of our choices marks us as worthy or unworthy people. Even if nobody else is aware how accounts stand, deep inside yourself the running balance will vitally affect your ability to trust, to love, to gain peace and wisdom from relationships and community.
And finally, aging and death. In the Western spiritual tradition, which grew out of a belief in original sin, the focus was primarily on the lesson that nothing in this world is more than illusion. This is only a stage on some longer journey we do not fully understand. To fall in love with your physical beauty or your wealth, your health, or your power to experience good feelings is to kid yourself because they will be taken away. A ninety-four-year-old aunt of mine with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and a woman I love dearly, said to me tearfully after the death of her husband, who had left her in comfortable circumstances, "They dont let you win. There is no way to win."
She had lived her life in the camp of science, honorably observing all its rules of rationality, but at his passing, science was useless to her. The Western spiritual tradition would reply, "Of course you can win. Everyone can win. And if you think you cant, then youre playing the wrong game." The only thing that gives our time on earth any deep significance is that none of this will last. Only that temporality gives our relationships any urgency. If you were indestructible, what a curse! How could it possibly matter whether you did anything today or next year or in the next hundred years, learned anything, loved anybody? There would always be time for anything and everything. What would be the big deal about anything?
Everyone has known the experience of having had a surfeit of candy, company, or even money, so that no individual purchase involves real choice because real choice always closes the door on other choices. I know that we would all like to have endless amounts of money, but the truth is, too much money wipes out our pleasure in choosing since we can now choose everything. Thats what Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius discovered for himself in his reflections about what really mattersthe Meditations, one of the great classics in Western history. He discovered none of the important things was for sale. If you dont believe an emperor would feel this way, read the Meditations.
Too much time, like too much money, can hang heavily on our hands as well. Look at the millions of bored schoolchildren. They know what I mean. The corrective for this boredom is a full spiritual awareness that time is finite. As you spend time on one thing, you lose forever the chance to spend it on something else. Time is always a big deal.
Science cant help with time. In fact, living scientifically so as not to waste time, becoming one of those poor souls who never goes anywhere without a list, is the best guarantee your life will be eaten up by errands and that none of those errands will ever become the big deal you desperately need to finally love yourself. The list of things to do will go ever onward and onward. The best lives are full of contemplation, full of solitude, full of self-examination, full of private, personal attempts to engage the metaphysical mystery of existence, to create an inner life.
We make the best of our limited time by alternating effort with reflection, and I mean reflection completely free of the get-something motive. Whenever I see a kid daydreaming in school, Im careful never to shock the reverie out of existence.
Buddha is reputed to have said, "Do nothing. Time is too precious to waste." If that advice seems impossible in the world described on the evening news, reflect on the awesome fact that in spite of hype, you still live on a planet where 67 percent of the worlds entire population has never made or received a single phone call and where the Old Order Amish of Lancaster County live prosperous lives virtually free of crime, of divorce, or of children who go beyond the eighth grade in school. Yet not a single one has a college degree, a tractor to plow with, a telephone in the house, or is on welfare.
If I seem to have stepped away from original sin with these facts, it is not so. Until you acknowledge that the factual contents of your mind upon which you base decisions have been inserted there by others whose motives you cannot fully understand, you will never come to appreciate the neglected genius of Western spirituality which teaches that you are the center of the universe. And that the most important things worth knowing are innate in you already. They cannot be learned through schooling. They are self-taught through the burdens of having to work, having to sort out right from wrong, having to check your appetites, and having to age and die.
The effect of this formula on world history has been titanic. It brought every citizen in the West a mandate to be sovereign, a concept which we still have not learned to use wisely, but which offers the potential for such wisdom. Western spirituality granted every single individual a purpose for being alive, a purpose independent of mass behavioral prescriptions, money, experts, schools, and governments. It conferred significance on every aspect of relationship and community. It carried inside its ideas the seeds of a self-activating curriculum which gives meaning to time, and imposes the duty of compassion, even for enemies, on believers.
In Western spirituality, everyone counts. It offers a basic, matter-of-fact set of practical guidelines, street lamps for the village of your life. Nobody has to wander aimlessly in the universe of Western spirituality. What constitutes a meaningful life is clearly spelled out: self-knowledge, duty, responsibility, acceptance of aging and loss, preparation for death. In this neglected genius of the West, no teacher or guru does the work for you. You do it for yourself. Its time to teach these things to our children once again.
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