Are we losing it? Is the moral glue holding society together coming apart? Two opposite views that help answer these questions recently caught my attention. The one that believes the answers are 'yes' is linked to the destructive road of self-absorption.
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen framed it this way: "Community -- a stable job, shared national experience, extended family, labor unions -- has vanished or eroded. In its place have come a frenzied individualism, solipsistic screen-gazing, the disembodied pleasures of social networking and the a-la-carte life as defined by 600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy grow in the lonely chamber of self-absorption and projection."
This is the story of society collapsing under the weight of its members not caring enough about each other, in particular those who are different. We become unwilling to sacrifice to benefit the welfare of those around us. This is a society where more people vote for American Idol than the President of the United States. True fulfillment comes from purchasing the latest electronic gizmo rather than having meaningful relationships.
The view that answers the questions with a 'no' is just as compelling. It hit home while watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, with my seven-year-old son Jacob. He learned that the band Kiss was to be featured on this particular episode, so he had to see it. I wanted to share the experience with him so I got to watch this show I had never heard of.
I was surprised to learn the premise of Extreme Makeover is to find a needy family and makeover their entire house (even if it takes ripping down the current one). This particular family was chosen because of their devotion to a non-profit that provides music lessons to local children. Instead of fixing the roof to keep out the rain and rats, they used their money to buy instruments to keep the program going in tough economic times.
The sight of literally hundreds of people marching down the street eager to help with the makeover brought tears to my eyes. I was overcome with emotion by the outpouring of generosity showering onto this family by ABC, their sponsors and a mass of volunteers. Soon after this episode aired the massive earthquake hit Haiti. The response to that crisis via people texting donations, making them online and flying to Port-au-Prince to help was magnificent.
Are we losing it? On the one hand, the variety of distractions that tempt us and move us into our own little worlds is formidable and potentially destructive. Yet just as formidable is the generosity of the human spirit and the capacity to care deeply about each other. As the above stories illustrate, both are powerful currents in modern society. Will one of them overcome the other?
Let's turn to the wisdom of some of the world's great spiritual traditions to find an answer. A Cherokee legend that acknowledges our selfish and generous natures answers the question this way:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.
"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil -- he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego." He continued, "The other is good -- he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."
However, Taoism (the Chinese philosophy represented by the Yin-Yang symbol) and Kabbalah (the mystical Jewish tradition) teach us not to starve off the evil wolf. Taoism acknowledges the interplay of light and dark forces as being essential to life as we know it. What does it mean to be "good" if there is no "bad?" One without the other is meaningless. According to Taoism, life moves in natural cycles. Sometimes the light is great and the dark is small. Other times the dark is great and the light is hard to find. We are called to work with these opposing forces and find the underlying harmony inherent in the natural order.
Kabbalah and classic Judaism also acknowledge the tension of opposing forces built into life. We are endowed with a yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and a yetzer hatov, or good inclination. The goal is not to destroy the yetzer hara but to use it in a positive way. The gift of free will enables us to choose which voice we listen to and what actions we take in any moment.
Hillel, a Jewish sage born around 120 BCE, said regarding balancing these opposing forces, "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?"
Taoism and Kabbalah teach us life is not about killing off the evil wolf within. If we do, we are killing off an essential part of ourselves. The wise course of action is to be conscious which part we are feeding. When we are, we can raise the sparks of darkness and use them for the good.
We do not have to be conflicted between enjoying our selfish pleasures and being selfless. Each has their rightful place in our lives. As far as which current will be dominate in our lives and in modern society, the Cherokee grandfather had it right; we need to be careful how we balance our diets to ensure optimal health!