A few times last year, I wrote and spoke of the real and imminent dangers facing us today. While some of the things I share may be applicable to other countries, my thoughts are for a Philippine context. These thoughts came from a question I was asked once while on a panel about what issues I think the country needs to focus on. While many would have said the economy, and poverty specifically, and others may have said the environment, or corruption, or education, all of which are massively critical, as I thought about that question from before, and about my audience then, mostly people drowning in these issues themselves, I remembered an often quoted line from The Gulag Archipelago:
“But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
I realized what my answer would have been. (I forget what my answer then was.) The most pressing issue for you, me, all of us today, is for you, me, all of us, to confront the evil in our personal selves.
I identified some particularly widespread “evils” we can easily observe today:
- Entitlement masked as Human Rights
- Vanity masked as Self-Esteem
- Superstition masked as Spirituality
- Impatience masked as Life Hacking
- Unreasonableness masked as Political Correctness
- Irresponsibility masked as Freedom
I’m adding two more: Externalizing Evil masked as Social Justice, which has led to today’s Call-Out Culture, and Materialism masked as Progress.
It is more important than ever, in an age of mob-rule, groupthink, and populism, in a time of fake news, biased news, and click-bait, for individuals to grow in mental and spiritual depth, which basically mean to grow in a wisdom that cuts through shallow thinking and in commitment to a life purpose that dwarfs natural pettiness.
To the entitled person, a post of someone having a great vacation, or driving a nice car, or buying a house elicits an “I should have that too.” A wise person doesn’t react that way. He or she responds, “I COULD have that too.” And an even wiser person would respond, “Will that really bring me joy?” And even wiser will identify, “Is this aligned with my own life’s purpose?” Do the posts of others trigger feelings of entitlement or reflection?
To a vain person, the path to Self-Esteem, is through external validation. It’s someone liking us, sharing us, praising us, acknowledging us, worshiping us, noticing us, and attention isn’t revived, the vain person feels rejected, unimportant, not special. But a wise person knows that one can never achieve self-esteem through external validation. No amount of outside praise can fill the black hole of an empty heart. So it doesn’t rely on it for fulfillment. It knows that all this outside attention is junk food, that may make us feel full, for a moment, but then leaves us unhealthy in the end. Instead, they develop self-reliance, the ability to stand securely independent of others, and for the things beyond their control, they develop personal perspectives.
To the Superstitious, any word said from their “god”, may he or she be a preacher, a shaman, a politician, an actor, an influencer, a pundit, an expert, an author, a professor, or a witch doctor, is taken as divine truth. Any word and every word. We think that steadfastly clinging to all the words of a man or woman makes us more pure, when purity does not come, cannot come, from other impure men and women like the rest of us. Humans are too inclined to bias, to personal agenda. It’s true for me. It’s true for you. It’s true for your hero. So the wise set up external tools, tools that defend themselves against themselves, tools such Opposable Thinking, Divergent Thinking, counting before responding, reading contextual work, empathy, gratefulness, open experiences, and more tools available to us to expand us. Does your hero narrow you? Or does your hero expand you? Does your hero narrow the world’s problems to someone else’s mistakes? Or does your hero lead you to the infinite work of eternal value within you?
To the Impatient, every new technology, new practice, Life Hacks they’re called, every new productivity idea needs to be immediately harnessed, and the results need to be immediately visible. But the wise person knows that success is more like a fruitful tree than a fast food drive through. You don’t simply drive up and order success from a menu. You cultivate your life towards the goals you have set for yourself, and fruits of that cultivated life, hopefully, are the fruits you want. This is actually a beautiful thing, because it means that there’s no one kind of success, that success can come in many different ways. What a beautiful picture it is to imagine millions of different, unique, special success stories, each, in their own chosen ways, contributing, not comparing, their voice to a grand symphony.
Unreasonableness, usually masked as Political Correctness, usually pretending to be commitment to an ideal, is self-deceiving. To the Unreasonable, there is no considering of alternative views, no considering that “maybe my view is wrong”, or, “maybe my view is incomplete”, or, “maybe I don’t know enough”. The Unreasonable person is usually emotionally attached to an idea, not an intellectual master of the subject matter. An Unreasonable person usually clings on to a narrow set of information from a narrow set of voices. The wise person admits the limits of what one can know and so values other perspectives and other approaches, even if those perspectives and approaches differ from his. He knows that we are all easily trapped by our biases. He knows that the more something resonates with us the more we should question the principle behind it, not just the resonance. He knows that the more an idea offends the more he should try to understand if there’s a valuable principle behind it. The wise person seeks understanding not validation.
To the Irresponsible, the fans of YOLO, those who are too cowardly to take on the burden and risk of accountability, they’ve found ideas and philosophies to rationalize the lack of accountability to others and to himself or herself. This lack of accountability masks as freedom but is really a prison of our own making. The wise person knows that a higher level of freedom exists for the one who defines himself or herself. When your existence has no definition, you will be subject to current definitions of the world around you. You will be unstable. But when you choose to excel in your responsibilities and, when you choose to cultivate long term relationships, when you choose for yourself what will define you, limiting yourself instead of doing whatever, you will find identity. When you know who you are, when you find your identity, you truly become free.
These “evils”, and they are evil because it sucks out beauty, life, and love, are easy to find for they humble and honest. They are inside everyone of us. I don’t need to look far for an example these things. I just need to close my eyes and recall my thoughts. But because I’ve been trained to reflect, to look transparently at the state of my soul, I’m able to recognize how prevalent these evils are in me, and so able to deal with them, and see myself improve in my ability to defeat them. But too many don’t even realize that these evils are inside them, and the reason why most of us are blind to our own darkness, is that we are distracted by the two evils I have added above:
- The Externalizing of Evil
The Externalizing of Evil means we are quick to recognize and attack the evil in the world and the evil in others, instead of admitting the great evil inside us, the evil we are actually accountable for and able to deal with. It is easier and more immediately satisfying to play Social Justice Warrior than it is to humbly and patiently mature one’s soul.
The Externalizing of Evil, the belief that the evils of this world exist outside me, and to fight them means to fight other evil people, makes us feel as if we are doing something about the general problem of evil without being accountable to addressing the evil inside of us. It’s easier to say, “I hate the pollution these big businesses are causing!” than it is to admit that it is our collective overconsumption and materialism that is powering the economies of these big businesses. It’s easy to say “Governments should make sure everyone has something to eat!” than it is to admit, “I over eat” or “My home wastes a lot of food”. It is easier to say, “Rapists should be castrated!” than it is to castrate, to cut off, our own objectification of people. The wise know and admit, “The Evil I need to be dealing with is in my heart. That part of me needs to be cut-off. It needs to die.” This shows us that wisdom requires much more than knowledge. It also requires the humility to admit personal evil, the courage to face, and the will to follow-through. Externalizing Evil requires none of that. In fact, it’s usually marked by the opposites: self-righteous pride of not being guilty, the cowardly attacking with keyboards behind social media and with mobs, and lack of follow-through. How many missile attacks have triggered us, have “moved” us, how much of our salaries have we donated to those causes? How much of our salaries went to milk tea? How many bullying events have triggered us into righteous indignation? How many times have we caught ourselves gossiping badly about another person? How many times have we called that gossip “concern” or “just venting”? Is there a rule somewhere that just because more socially unacceptable evils exist in others that we are now innocent of evils we and others have learned to live with?
Personally, I’ve written much about how I struggle with this dissonance, how I’m no longer surprised by the great evils in the world because I recognize the seeds, the roots, the stems, the branches, even the fruits, of great evil in my self. And even with just the garden of good and evil inside me, where I am too busy cultivating the good and burning the bad, I find that I have very little time to police others, to go calling-out, to lynch, physically and digitally, and to cowardly pretend. My heart is my garden, your heart is yours, and I want people to enjoy the fruit of my garden, and I want to connect with people who have cultivated themselves with beautiful things to share as well. I don’t know how that can be achieved if we spend so much time attacking another life while our own remains untended.
Materialism defined online is:
“Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material interactions.”
Let me simplify it for you: Materialism is the valuing of material things above all else. A simple way to check for Materialism in our own lives is to honestly reflect on what is capturing our attention and is driving us. Many times, I catch myself working very hard (as usual) for material reasons, not necessarily bad reasons (it’s not evil to want a new car or a nicer home), but temporal things. In my head, I tell myself, “If I could only earn enough to afford this/that life would be much better.” When I see others have it and I don’t, I sense envy and impatience in me start to grow. Especially when I see “corrupt” people having the good life, I sense bitter resentment mixed in. When the material things become most valuable to me, it screws my ability to look at the world clearly. It makes me angry at those who have, proud when I have, insecure when I don’t have enough, and mistakenly secure – for a short moment – while I still have enough. Materialism, the valuing having over being, makes us proud, insecure, artificially secure, envious, and impatient at the same time.
I think a lot of the ills I mentioned above come from a heart that is primarily Materialist.
Feelings of Entitlement surface when others have things what we feel we should also have. If we truly valued virtue more, things like love, joy, and peace, would there be any reason to feel entitled to what someone has? Isn’t there more love, joy, and peace for all of us when we celebrate what others have instead of feel like we’re unfairly treated? I have friends much richer and much poorer than me, and I treat them the same. I value love, joy, and peace, true riches in my opinion, and there’s enough those to go around. In a material world, scarcity is a reality. In many ways, the limitedness of something, it’s finiteness, impacts its value. But in the world of virtue, the value of the virtue has nothing to do with with its exclusivity. You aren’t more special or more valuable because you have more virtue. The value of the virtue is in the beauty the virtue begets. I think a virtuous approach to a material world is to focus more on the lasting beauty and lasting good the material generates, not simply the having of the material itself.
Do the things you have make you more productive? Or are they distracting you from being a better person?
Do the things you have make you more loving? Or do they make you more proud or insecure?
Do the things you have make you more joyful? Or do they make you more envious or boastful?
I know I am far off from the right path when I find I am more concerned with having than being. When my lack makes me worried instead of determined, when my abundance makes me proud or wasteful instead of generous, I know that society’s materialism is choking my heart.
The Cost of Joy
I was shooting hoops with a friend of mine last Saturday. I’ve known him for a while and have consistently encouraged him to remove distractions and put his many talents to good use. We were chatting about work when he said something very insightful:
“It used to be that when people saw money or success, what people appreciated and respected was the hard work and the great effort that went into the achievement. People used to say, “If you’re that successful, you must be someone to respect.” It seems these days, and I really see it in the Philippines, that people don’t care so much about the character behind the money, but they’re really attracted to the things, the lifestyle, the money can buy. They don’t care if the person never worked a day in his life and simply inherited it. What matters is that he’s rich. They don’t care if the person is corrupt and stole the money. What matters is that he can afford nice things.”
I thought about what he said as I walked home. My friend, himself a “rich kid”, and himself trying to reconcile this very material world with the person he knows he can be, described very succinctly what’s wrong with society.
“…people don’t care so much about the character behind the money, but they’re really attracted to the things, the lifestyle, the money can buy.”
You can change the word ‘money’ for ‘fame’, ‘attention’, ‘likes’, ‘acceptance’, etc. People don’t care about the character behind these things anymore. They only care about what these things can attain.
In a world where people stop caring about a person’s character, and mostly obsessed with what can attain, don’t be surprised if society is filled with darkness. We traded away the being for the having, the life for the material, and beauty for attention.
Then you wonder why you’re not happy. You shouldn’t wonder anymore. You now know exactly why. I explained it to you in this article.
Now let me give you an alternative life. It’s the life I fight to live out. Sometimes, I fail in my attempts, but then I just start again the next day. In my experience, while there are many ways to lose joy, there are only a few things a person needs to do to regain it. For me, my time to regain or refresh joy in my life is in the morning, right before I attack the day. It’s my time of devotions, which is made up of the following:
- Daily Gratefulness: I list and savor three things I’m grateful to God for. No matter what my current circumstance, I force myself to look for things I’m grateful for.
- Daily Wisdom: I read a verse or verses and meditate on what they mean. A devotional guide is useful for this. Again I force myself to do this.
- Daily Worship: I pray to God, reminding myself of my very insignificant place in the universe, and that I’m lucky to be alive, lucky to be able live out another day, and lucky to be able to try to make a difference. Regardless of my current circumstance, I remind myself that I’m lucky to even experience it.
This practice does not magically zap my problems away nor mystically make me a better person. What they do is they correct my perspective. Instead of being entitled, vain, superstitious, impatient, unreasonable, and irresponsible, I become grateful, deep, wise, patient, understanding, and responsive. Instead of externalising evil and blaming others for my situation, I am forced to work on my own very obvious inner evil. Instead of starting with the material, instead of jumping into the rat race of having, I immerse in the water of being.
This isn’t an easy practice. It also isn’t the most elegant for me. I use alarm clocks, reminders, and my notes reveal a struggle, not only to remain consistent, but to fight my own very real entitlement. But, lately, one thought has really helped me. It’s the thought of my son, Elijah. Whenever I think about what I’m most grateful for, my thoughts always turn to him. Whenever I think about what I need most wisdom for, they also turn to him. (Especially, now that he’s become very wilful!) When I think about my limitations, how small I truly am, and how big a challenge I need to conquer, I think about my role as a father to Elijah.
But I also think about the joy he is to me and his mother. Elijah, for all the concerns and responsibilities he brings with him, brings us unspeakable joy. I’ve never seen anyone so excited to see me. I’ve never felt so much hope and excitement for anyone. The cost of having him, the time, money, energy, and opportunity cost (babies are high maintenance!) are nothing compared to the joy he brings.
Joy has a cost. It has a time cost. It has an energy cost. It sometimes has a money cost. But what it really has is an attention cost. When I move my attention away from the things I don’t have, from the things I think I deserve, from the things I’m wishing I had, to the people already in my life and the person I am and becoming, I find joy.