Sunday, October 3, 2004

A Call For a World Led By Reason

It is commonly heard by most of us in the ordinary course of our lives: at the grocery store, in offices and elevators, at work sites and churches, and in this venue, amid discussion groups and chat rooms all over the world. As with most of our most common threads of communication, it is an expression that needs to be examined carefully.

"Everything happens for a reason."

We'll begin by accepting it, by allowing that it contains at least a seed of truth or resonance, and then ask questions of it. What kinds of situations or problems does this phrase speak to? Why do we say it--what benefit of insight or consolation is arrived at through this phrase? What do we really mean when we say it? What does it signify about our guiding, underlying beliefs and assumptions? What alternatives might be discovered to this assurance? These questions will serve as our starting point, and will no doubt lead us to more pointed and illuminating questions, for this is the process by which all understanding is advanced.

We seem to be affirming something when we say that "everything happens for a reason." We seem to be reminding ourselves that there are greater or broader purposes operating in the universe than we humans can perceive. That's why the phrase is so often heard in response to news of events that seem to make no sense: a murder, bad news from the war front, a terrorist attack, a personal reversal such as job loss, death in the family, divorce, a financial disaster or a material loss.

So far, it would appear, so good. But (speaking of good), do we mean that everything happens for a beneficial reason--that God or the Universe intends that we suffer, that we struggle, that we muddle over the treadmill of group expectations while precious years dwindle away before us? In other words, is the phrase implicitly assuring us that "everything happens for a good reason?" If that's what people mean when they trot out this phrase, then we'd better keep asking questions.

Is the course of events currently being perpetuated in Iraq actually providential on some Cosmic plane? I think you'd have a difficult time making that case to many of the parents of those being brought home in bodybags. Sure, the reversals and the inertia of the war are leading people to question what their government is doing there, and whether a change in our leadership might liberate us from the train of pointless tragedy that has ravaged the lives of families in both Iraq and America. Yet to say that we can learn and transform ourselves through adversity is not the same as saying that it's happening out of a benign Cosmic intent. The fact is, not everything happens for a good reason: some things happen because people--especially people in positions of power--are too short-sighted, corrupt, greedy, or just plain mistaken to think and feel their way clearly through an issue or problem before taking impulsive action. Kerry's assessment, spoken during the recent debate, is correct: there was a "colossal error of judgment," for which innocent individuals are being forced to pay a horrible price.

Obtaining inner clarity before one acts is about much more than kneeling piously in the Oval Office and asking God to help one's cause. There are other steps involved--both on the plane of feeling-consciousness and in the realm of intellectual understanding. For the former, there is perhaps no better personal strategy than to simply ask questions of one's own beliefs, and discard the ones that cannot stand up to a simple, visceral process of self-examination. One such belief, for example, is captured in the impulsive dogma, "Force is the only influence that people understand or respond to positively." The fact is that force is what people least understand, and are most unwilling to accept. The use of force creates a forceful reaction, which breeds more frequent and more violent force, in a maelstrom of strike and counter-strike that soon adopts its own uncontrollable momentum. If the President had taken a cursory glance at history, or if he had read his father's book, he might have perceived this truth for himself and been able to discard the obstructive delusion before it had led him in the wrong direction. And in the way of seeking a balanced intellectual perspective, if he had been more careful to choose advisors and staff members that represented a more diverse range of perception, then he may have learned something from his cabinet that could have prevented the egregious errors that seem to have defined his administration.

Obviously, these things didn't happen "for a reason," except the reason that the self-aggrandizing beliefs of a privileged few were allowed to dominate the prevailing feeling-wisdom of the many who knew in their bones that this war was based on an egotistical delusion. The Universe has no "reason" for causing people to die and mourn while justice is undermined and the planet further degraded.

So, perhaps a more appropriate statement to make in the face of such events is, "Everything can teach us something, if we listen carefully." Can we learn to listen within ourselves for the noise of fear, the impulsive thrust of violence--can we learn to identify, isolate, and destroy the inner distortions of malignant belief that have crept into us during the process of societal conditioning? Can we learn, as Thich Nhat Hanh said in the wake of 9/11, to "kill the Osama bin Laden within us"? And might not such an effort on our part help us to act responsibly, maturely, and in proper measure, on the outer plane?

I do not know the answers to these questions; I can only point out that the alternative that has been offered by the Bush administration is the same option that feudal autocrats have obsessively pursued for thousands of years--it is the ideology of enmity and division: "kill them all and let God sort them out." As John Kerry has repeatedly said during his campaign, we can do better than that. And we must. Perhaps it is time now to cease our search for a "reason" for our struggles, and instead discover their lesson.

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