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We Don't Need a Political Revolution, We Need an Ethical One

I asked my student if she had voted.

“Nah,” she replied. “I don’t really care.”

I told her how important it was to participate in the democratic process.

“What does it matter,” she said. “My vote really doesn’t count.”

I couldn’t blame her. Although I had voted in college, I really couldn’t explain how I felt on any issue. I just voted Republican on my absentee ballot because my parents voted Republican. My journalism professor had given a quiz asking us to list who was in the Presidential Cabinet. I couldn’t name a single one, and neither could most of my classmates. Yes, we were journalism students.

Marianne Williamson had described this political apathy in her book, Healing the Soul of America. She wrote that the power of the government lies in its people. If some people choose to disengage, others who engage will assume more power.

But if the American people don’t take our government back, re-engaging a process we have chosen to ignore for a while, then we have no right to complain about those who would take it over in our absence.

She continued about how important it was for American citizens to reawaken. She saw this critical opening just after the impeachment of the president. She smelled the “dissent” in the air. She saw the nation coming apart, and it was time for the people to come together.

If some people choose to disengage, others who engage will assume more power.

Of course, the impeachment she described was not President Trump’s — it was President Clinton’s. She wrote this book before 9/11, the Great Recession, and the social media proliferation. Even though she had believed the end of the 20th Century would mark the beginning of social reform, it didn’t happen. People remained asleep.

Her thesis was that America needed to recover its soul. Even then, Williamson warned that a polarized society results in chaos. Where one party, group or identity might reign in one era, the other gathers its strength to usurp that power in the next era. However, when the nation joins as one unit, it can evolve and grow more efficiently. She called for an “awakening.”

Our culture has lost its sense of sacred connection to any power or authority higher than ourselves. Our national conscience is barely alive as we slither like snakes across a desert floor toward any hole where money lies. Nothing short of an internal awakening will heal us.

Twenty years later and after her own run for president, Williamson’s thesis still goes unheeded. We still haven’t learned. My students are still disengaged.

A “Moral Renaissance”

In October 2019, Attorney General William Barr spoke to the Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame about the importance of governing ourselves. His argument, though, stressed the importance of religious institutions in promoting moral discipline. He blamed the ills of society on the secularization of American culture and advocated the resurgence of religiously-affiliated schools to usher in a “moral renaissance.” However, this places the moral responsibility of the nation on an institution rather than owning it ourselves. It just transfers power from religious institutions to academic institutions and disregards the idea of self-governance.

Williamson, too, suggests revisiting morals, but she prefers spiritual principles, which are universal. She writes, “Moral principles, while not relative in themselves, can be interpreted in many ways. Spiritual principles, on the other hand, are based on objective, discernable laws of consciousness.” In other words, the choice in having an abortion might be a moral interpretation, but the dignity of human life is a spiritual principle that reaches across all religions.

A “Spiritual Revolution”

The Dalai Lama called for a “spiritual revolution” more than 20 years ago. In his book, Ethics for a New Millennium, he writes that all humans play a role in creating problems in communities. We can rely on others to vote and create change, but ultimately, we must consider how we contribute to these issues. He issues a call for an ethical participation in community.

It is a call for a radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self. It is a call to turn toward the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own.

This might be a tough pill to swallow for many. We easily become so consumed with our own problems that we are blind to our connection to others in the human family. Rather than looking at how we might be exacerbating our own suffering, we place the blame on others and use it as an excuse to remain complacent.

If we believe change can only come when someone else changes, we’re giving others even more power over us. We’re placing conditions for change in someone else’s hands. It’s like refusing to forgive someone until they apologize. If the apology never happens, we remain stuck in that storyline.

We also point out the splinter in others’ eyes before we see our own. We make assumptions about how others behave and feel without seeing how these are projections of our own experiences.

On the other hand, if we all do our part in taking ownership of our stories (and reactions), we can create change. Conflicts originate from a thought in our own mind. If we take a good look at these thoughts, we can at least resolve potential conflicts within our own families and social circles. Each action we take influences our community. Our small drop fills an ocean.

No walls can isolate the parts of a system.

A look at the interdisciplinary study of systems can explicate how we are connected to one another. A business, for instance, can be considered a system, where one part affects the whole. If one part, such as customer service, decides to strike, then the rest of the business will have to adapt to this change. Because Earth is a system, a slight heating at one part of the Earth affects climate worldwide. Even in the body, if one cell doesn’t operate effectively, other cells are affected. Markets are global systems, and the United States operates within this system. No walls can isolate the parts of a system.

Similarly, our actions towards others affect the system. Consider what happens if we get into a fight with a loved one. We leave for work in an angered state, and perhaps we cut off someone in traffic. This person, swerving to avoid a collision with us, runs into a guardrail and cannot get to work. She is a surgeon, and she is scheduled to perform a life-saving procedure on a patient who has been waiting for months. I could go on, but you get the gist. What we do is not isolated. Our actions — the good and the bad — affect others in ways our preoccupied selves might not realize.

The Dalai Lama calls this interdependent nature of reality “dependent origination.” Every action has a subsequent reaction, which has the potential to affect society at large. The Dalai Lama believes our actions are rooted in the principle that every being desires to be happy and to be free from suffering. Some of our actions cause suffering in others, others create peace. In some cases, our sensory desires for pleasure might bring about our own eventual suffering, such as those rooted in adultery, greed or addiction. Conversely, there are times when we act with compassion to relieve suffering of others, and our own happiness arises. We can also look into the nature of our own suffering as a means of connecting with others who suffer.

When empathy governs our acts, peace and unity can emerge.

What is important is that our actions have consequences, and we must consider how these consequences contribute to the health of the system. A failure to consider these consequences is at the heart of self-centered thinking. Placing our own desires for happiness before others’ potential suffering results in conflict and polarization in the community. The antidote for self-centeredness and polarization is what the Dalai Lama calls the “supreme emotion,” empathy. When empathy governs our acts, peace and unity can emerge.

Having concern for others breaks down the very barriers which inhibit healthy interaction with others…We also find that when we act out of concern for others, the peace this creates in our own hearts brings peace to everyone we associate with.

The Dalai Lama defines ethical acts as those where we restrain ourselves so that others might be happy or free from suffering. We restrain afflictive emotions such as anger, greed, pride and lust because our responses to them effect suffering on ourselves or others. They can deceive us into believing we are powerful, but they ultimately prey upon our weaknesses and cause us to act irrationally. They might bring about a temporary win, but eventually they lead us down a path of destruction. The Dalai Lama reflects upon individuals who might temporarily thrive in their afflictive states.

Consider the individual whose activities are directed principally by afflictive emotion or, to put it another way, by gross attachments and aversions: by greed, arrogant ambition, and so forth. Such a person may become very powerful and very famous. Their name may even go down in history. But after they die, their power is gone and their fame is no more than an empty word.

The Dalai Lama doesn’t deny certain anger that results from our seeing injustice. When we help out someone in the spirit of justice, this can be positive. Our “anger” can motivate us to action. On the other hand, the afflictive state of anger can cause us to act without concern for others. This is not to encourage our repressing our afflictive emotions. Instead, we seek an appropriate response — rather than reaction — that can manifest necessary change and lasting reform.

Whereas ethical acts are concerned with restraining afflictive states, spiritual acts are those carried out through compassion, patience, tolerance, and humility. The Dalai Lama suggests for us to practice these virtues in small moments so that they naturally flow from us during pressured ones. Anger might cause us to react without thinking, but cultivating patience allows us to cool down the temperature of a conflict until we arrive at a proper resolution. Our training of virtues complements our restraining afflictive states. In restraining excess greed, we practice generosity. Cultivating humility dampens our pride.

The Dalai Lama writes that our ethics and spiritual acts can become our political participation because they go beyond ever-changing norms and laws. “When they are present in our lives, everything we do becomes an instrument to benefit the whole human family.”

Growing Seeds of Ethics

We might call for a political uprising where political power changes hands. That, too, happened 20 years ago, solving some problems and giving rise to others. Economic situations will rise and fall. Gun violence, terrorist threats, and widespread health epidemics will dominate news coverage for a short time. Civil liberties will be threatened, and reform might be slow. In order for political progress to take root and flourish, it must originate from seeds of ethics. Each of us has the power to change our communities, our country, and our world. Our political participation starts with changing ourselves.

William Barr somewhat concurs. “We understand that only by transforming ourselves can we transform the world beyond ourselves.”

It takes humility to recognize our behavior might not have been perfect, and it takes courage to take the first step in reconciliation. It requires us to be honest with ourselves and with others, admitting our mistakes and learning from them. It takes treating others with love in the face of hate.

Williamson had this similar vision 20 years ago, which I believe is finally awakening.

The fabric of American society can only be rewoven one stitch at a time: one person forgiven, one child read to, one sick person prayed for, one elder given respect and made to feel needed, one prisoner rehabilitated, one mourner given comfort. These actions, when performed sincerely, emanate from spiritual ground that is itself the healing of our problems, as our separation from that ground of being has itself been our primary wound.

From there, we can create community leaders who demonstrate ethical behavior. We can build a participatory democracy based on virtues of compassion, generosity, patience, honesty and humility. Then, when it comes time to vote, we feel empowered in choosing those leaders who embody these ethics.

And when we ask our younger generations if they have exercised their right to vote, they can respond with a resounding, “Yes.”

This post originally appeared on Medium.

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