As so many people in the world are having extremely difficult times, any advice worth listening to seems welcome. There are two voices from the past that offer such on both a collective and an individual level, a very cogent observation. The renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee observed that it was not what happens to a civilization [country] but how it reacts that determines the outcome. A case in point, of course, was the “decline and fall of the Roman empire” which resulted from laxity and frivolity, political squabbling, contrasts between wealth and poverty, and many of the other symptoms facing our own country today. Those who are aware of history can think of many other examples, including some positive ones. Yet, many countries start out reacting positively only to fall into the power trap, such as Germany after WWI, which resulted in the Nazi regime of corrupt socialism and the Soviet version, which degenerated into tyrannical communism. Both countries started out with meaningful ideology and both ended with defeat from outer and inner forces. Then a new development cast off communism by people coming out in thousands peacefully demonstrating and protesting tyranny.
In our own country, in the late 1700s, a strange sequence was to emerge. Hindu philosophy came to Europe for the first time and was translated into German coincidentally with the American Revolution, and, as a result, some New Englanders chose to go to German universities rather than England’s Oxford or Cambridge. They learned of ahimsa, nonviolence. This inspired Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, which was read by a young Gandhi in South Africa, who went on to liberate India without firing a shot, which influenced Martin Luther King, and led eventually to the peaceful inauguration of Barack Obama. Phew! The power of ideas! This is a new way of reacting, for sure!
On the individual level, the Swiss psychologist Jung put forward the same idea, saying it’s not what happens to us but how we react to it that determines our fate. We have a choice. We even say, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!” An extreme example would be blind and deaf Helen Keller, but so many outstanding Americans have demonstrated this way of reacting, coming out of difficult circumstances in youth – one could almost name it a national trait. Contrast this, alas, with an increasing segment of our contemporary population who are succumbing to escapism in distorted pleasure-seeking drugs, porn, and crime. The hours spent on TV and video games, to say nothing of the Internet, imply living an ersatz life. In the meantime, we are risking losing our planet, our own physical well-being, and our ability to relate to each other in a genuine way. Now adversity offers us “the kitchen table,” the rediscovering of families around it and the challenge of reacting in a real and not synthetic way. Our frenetic national extraversion hopefully may adjust to rediscovering some of the rewards of introversion and a search for simple rather than virtual reality. This implies the need for a profound change in our values, taking time “to smell the roses,” noticing the suffering and needs of others, of animals, and the environment, and offering compassionate service to them insofar as we are able. This kind of reaction, were it to spread, might even save our world.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of this simple response to adversity! It liberates us from feeling helpless victims and gives us a very real freedom of decision and action. There is a price, of course, that comes with it: conscious decisions, psychologically understood, involve “karma,” or facing the results, positive or negative. For me, personally, the answer is to pray for inner guidance. I recite Buddha’s Noble Eight-fold Path every night before I sleep. The more I reflect upon its wisdom, the greater the respect I have for its simplicity and reliance on common sense. At the risk of being repetitive, I enclose it again as a daily checklist for spiritual review. So here it is again:
THE NOBLE EIGHT-FOLD PATH
The Four Noble Truths
There is suffering in this world:
All suffering comes from attachment and desire
There is a way beyond suffering
The way is the Noble Eight-fold Path:
Free from superstition and delusion
High and worthy of the intelligent; worthy of man
Kindly, open, and truthful
Peaceful, honest, and pure
Bringing hurt or danger to no living being
In self-training and self-control
The active, watchful mind
In deep meditation on the realities of life
— Gautama Buddha , 6th Century B.C.