Ins and Outs

When the world feels at its most volatile or threatening, like it’s on the wrong path or the forces around us are turning against us, there seem to be two primary spiritual responses.  One is to push back.  Preach the truth and put pressure on those who do not accept it.  Empower the spiritually correct, as in literally hand them as much power as you can help secure for them, and fight to win.  The other is to draw back.  Surround yourself with a tiny world of enlightenment and spread love and truth in your own tiny sphere in your own tiny way, hoping to make ripples that will change the world in some small way.

The first assumes that “winning” either crushes or converts the opposition.  That if your truth is backed with enough power, that truth can be wielded as a tool or weapon to fix what is “wrong”.  And, sure, in terms of government and policy and the creation of systems which underpin the structure of society, yeah, it can work.  That’s why people get involved in politics.  It’s why churches send missionaries around the world.  Spiritual beliefs paint a picture of how the world “ought to be”, and with enough power and influence a group can turn that image into reality.  Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s harmful.  But it never does what it’s intended at the individual level.  The spiritual warfare path doesn’t, on a large scale, do a lot to change the minds of those who now feel they are attacked or oppressed.  No power can be wielded in victory without leaving others feeling oppressed in defeat.  That is an absolute truth.  Victory and defeat rarely change minds, only allegiances and motivations.

The second assumes that the answer to changing the world is to change oneself.  That if we live our personal spirituality, it will show others the way.  And it can absolutely help restore a sense of control and peace and hope in our own lives.  Our acts of compassion and kindness can deeply impact another and inspire individual hope.  But this, also, rarely has the intended impact.  When we withdraw into our own spiritual state, our own peace, we disconnect from the larger forces of negativity.  To those who are active parts of the social forces we seek to combat, we become largely invisible.  Those boosted by our small acts of kindness rarely see our reasoning for it, and while they may feel uplifted, their minds and hearts will only be changed towards us as individuals, not towards the larger force of humanity.

Somehow we have separated our spiritual paths from sensible social activism.  We do the individual self-serving bit, and we do the loud and forceful dissemination of truth bit, and we forget all about the bit in the middle.  The part where we take the large symbolic fight and conduct it one on one, confronting the actions of individuals around us when they are destructive and oppressive and harmful.  The part where we don’t just help people feel better for the moment, but walk with them while showing them the path to real, tangible, actual help.

The real change happens when the people who feel shamed and forgotten and beaten down while forces beyond their control argue about what should be done, the people who may be uplifted in the moment by your individual compassion but must return to their problems when you have walked away feeling better about yourself, when all those people see a chance to seize some power for themselves.

So yes, go protest, get loud and angry, contribute to organizations and join movements and shout the truth.  And yes, turn off the media, do things that make you feel better, pray and hug people and pay for the customer behind you in line.  But realize that none of that does very much to change the world, to change the future.  They change the present.  They change the here and now for a little while.  They allow us to be detached from the reality of the problems, to treat them like faceless forces or metaphorical energies and not like the lived realities of actual humans we walk beside every day.

We know it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.  But in the short term some people need to be given fish.  And it doesn’t do any good to teach someone to fish when they’re nowhere near water or if we don’t make sure they have a fishing pole.  And it definitely doesn’t do any good to assure the hungry person that you contribute heavily to the creation of fishing education programs so that someday they might have access to fishing classes.  And above all, it doesn’t do a damn bit of good to sit on your private dock practicing catch and release.

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