“When we come to the moral principles on which the government is to be administered, we come to what is proper for all conditions of society. Liberty, truth, probity, honor, are declared to be the four cardinal principles of society. I believe that morality, compassion, generosity, are innate elements of the human constitution.” – Thomas Jefferson
Humanity creates mountains of unnecessary suffering because we have not evolved in our psychological development sufficiently to break free of ego’s hold on our identity and on our priorities. Ego says, “I am not enough” and prioritizes getting more for me and mine, and this places us in unending relationships of competition and comparison with others. The unfortunate fact, however, is that there is NEVER enough for ego, and so humanity careens along focused on materialism, sensationalism, and competition, seeking to appease ego’s insatiable insecurity. We are seemingly lost in this state of insecurity, and there are those who say this is human nature and that it cannot be otherwise.
In our current situation, we are aware that our materialism and greed have eclipsed the planet’s ability to endlessly support our “growth economy,” our society being dependent and addicted to our economy growing year after year after year. Yet, we seem incapable of reframing our institutions to develop economies which work for our real needs, to find a sustainable level of homeostasis with our resources. Our social scientists long ago described how we continue, generation after generation, to recreate misery, inequity, poverty, and discrimination because we blindly support an economic system which perpetuates privilege for some at the expense of others. Our psychologies have clearly delineated that we live within unnecessary levels of personal insecurity which manifest as the variety of neuroses and character disorders that arise out of a society that breeds this insecurity from the cradle to the grave. Social psychologists describe how functional levels of individual psychopathology are accepted as “normal” while our institutions function in the manner which in an individual would be called sociopathic. Psychological maladjustment pervades all levels of our society. This may be perhaps “normal,” as in that it is accepted as the common state, but it remains nonetheless quite insane.
Are we so doomed? Is it inconceivable that humanity could acknowledge and meaningfully act upon what is known as this character flaw which is so often described as “human nature?” The argument is compelling, and it is also depressing. The news is not good. There seems to be a growing acceptance among us that we are headed to some dystopian version of human society, intentions toward a utopia where human misery is finally conquered seem to be fading into the category of deluded optimism. Our politics is frightening. Esteemed historians openly voice concern that American democracy is threatened as never before by authoritarian political figures who have successfully tapped into our insecurities and who are pushing us toward political and social chaos. Support for demagogues seeking to seize power seems unfazed by factual exposure of their corruption and intent, threatening to end this American experience in liberal democracy. Our economy churns on, perpetually focused on exploiting insecurities pushing more and more consumerism despite our scientific knowledge that we MUST develop a more conserving economy of comfortable sufficiency if we are to address the growing climate crisis. The requisite level of sensationalism necessary to hold people’s attention increases exponentially as we become a mass attention-deficit society, the necessary level of focus for nuanced and detailed examination, for persons to really see and understand their circumstance, is lost in the escalating noise of media. It does not look good.
Yet – Is there not something more to us human beings than our insecure egos that drive this madness? Is there not reason and compassion in us as well? Is there not a deeper level of our humanity which works toward greater goodness and kindness? Is there not an instinct within us to move human society away from exploitation and cruelty? History tells us there is. History tells us that we have evolved out of monarchies and slavery, out of the idea of an impoverished peasantry supporting an aristocratic class being the natural order, out of dogmatic religions dictating political ideology, out of many of the false divisions of prejudice which have separated us and been the driver of so much violence, exploitation, and cruelty. While egoism is one dimension of human nature, there is also in our nature this well of reason and compassion which we have turned to when our maladjusted egos have taken us down our darkest paths. American democracy and liberalism are offsprings of this nature and must reassert themselves as autocracy and illiberalism have once again raised their ugly heads in the midst of our current social confusion caused by unbalanced ego’s ascendency.
Thomas Jefferson, along with many of this country’s founding figures, were persons of what is called The Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, where reason, wisdom, and compassion were brought to bear in political philosophy as never before in human history. Reason, wisdom, and compassion are also at the heart of Buddhist teaching with its emphasis on understanding and overcoming the human tendency to experience and create unnecessary suffering for ourselves, others, and the natural world and stands with all the spiritual traditions of humanity in recognizing the better and deeper orders of human nature as necessary to counterbalance our egos’ imprudence and callousness. It is lack of reason and compassion which fuels ideas such as “greed is good,” and “trickle down economies,” neglecting the natural order of balance and sufficiency that harmonizes the planet and all species upon it. It is the lack of reason and compassion which drives the competition and exploitation, the greed and ignorance, that generate and perpetuate human conflict and the degeneration of a healthy planet. This is not reasonable; it is not wise.
When we look deeply, we see in all religions the teaching of compassion at the center of their revelation, and the distance between this core teaching and how religions manifest as agents of divisiveness, judgement, and conflict in the world is quite possibly humanity’s greatest failing. Yet, within all religions, there remain the currents of the original inspiration, usually within a marginalized subset of mystics. Jesus taught unequivocally, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Mystics of all cultures recognize one absolute truth, and it is the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all Life, that we exist as a single expression of the mystery of Creation as brothers and sisters born out of miracle, meant to honor and care for one another, not only within the human community, but with ALL of Creation. “Love one another” stands as the most important instruction in human history.
While our culture, based in materialism, competition, and exploitiveness is what shapes the consciousness of the common person and agencies of our world, there remain those who are, in the language of mysticism, “awake” to the true nature of this Universe and Life’s true purpose. They seek to live and teach, for the sake of human redemption, their own and our human collective, the necessity of reason and compassion for ending the relentless legacy of suffering inflicted by a worldview dominated by egoic selfishness. Such people may or may not be associated with a major religion, but they are united in their insight into the necessity for awakening reason and compassion in the human community.
Contemporary Christian philosopher and theologian, Ilia Delio expresses wisdom, reason, and compassion when she tells us: “Compassion is realized when we know ourselves related to one another, a deep relatedness of our humanity despite our limitations. It goes beyond the differences that separate us and enters the shared space of created being. To enter this space is to have space within ourselves, to welcome into our lives the stranger, the outcast, and the poor.” And “We have the capacity to heal this earth of its divisions, its wars, its violence, and its hatreds. This capacity is the love within us to suffer with another and to love the other without reward. Love that transcends the ego is love that heals.”
Despite what those who cloak themselves in egoic self-righteousness preach, calling themselves “Christian patriots,” they are the real heretics to true religion, persecuting their fellow humans in the name of religion or patriotism through the ages. Neither Jefferson nor Jesus would agree with them, and for those who would reject the teachings of Buddhism as not of this culture, it is of the greatest importance to recognize that within our culture and religious traditions, reason and compassion are also taught as the very heart of what is best in us. In example, the current Pope calls on humanity to take responsibility for the planet and to back away from polluting technologies and consumerism while calling for an end to all discrimination, including against the LGBT+ community. The question is whether these political Christians listen to a legitimate spiritual leader like Pope Francis or only to their divisive false prophet leaders? Buddha and Jesus stand together with historical enlightenment political figures teaching reason and compassion as the way to the democratic ideals which move humanity forward toward its destiny, not in some totalitarian, materialistic dystopia, but humanity in harmony with itself and the natural world. Our current political, social, and ecological realities demand that responsible and truly spiritual and patriotic people speak and act with an invigorated urgency calling for reason and compassion. Delio summarizes: “We must seek to unite—in all aspects of our lives—with one another and with the creatures of the earth. Such union calls us out of isolated existences into community. We must slow down, discover our essential relatedness, be patient and compassionate toward all living creatures, and realize that it is a shared planet with finite resources. We are called to see and love in solidarity with all creation. Only in this way can the earth enjoy justice and peace which means right, loving relations with the natural world of God’s good creation.”