Thursday, 24 March 2016

The 1 Habit of Truly Decent People

Propaganda North Korea 02
We're hearing a lot these days about patriotism and national greatness and ideological purity and economic theory and cold dead fingers. The speakers seem to take it for granted that their convictions are honourable, simply because they are convictions.

I've encountered this misconception again and again in my half-century walkabout, first as a historian and then as a religious man. Faith is sexy. It's dramatic and macho and you get to make stirring speeches with lots of sanctimonious platitudes, like a movie hero.

But take it from me: given enough indulgence and half a chance, believers will destroy the world.

Just being embattled doesn't confer honour. Bad causes are a giant waste of time and life, to say nothing of the mountain of karmic debt. Shall we free-associate a few examples?
  • the Southern cause in the American Civil War
  • the Third Reich
  • Soviet Communism
All three demanded utter allegiance, promised endless glory, and made sacrifice a virtue. They were also pointless, stupid, and evil, and if there's a judgement at the end of this life, those who devoted their lives to them are unhappy now. Their unshakeable faith is worth exactly nothing.

Yet people continue to insist they can skip the humility, self-examination, and moral courage required of competent adults, and make a thing right by sheer force of conviction.

I know what that's like. I was a revolutionary myself. I clung tightly to a list of high-minded principles. That made me angry, which I took for a mark of righteousness. And that anger made me hypocritical, untrustworthy, and ultimately counter-revolutionary. I could – and did – turn on others for the slightest imagined shortcoming. (Worst of these: not being as angry as I was.)

Let's be clear: belief itself is the problem here. We're taught that it's the soul of decency, but it's not. Belief is meant constantly to be raked: kicked around, wrung out, scraped clean, tuned up, and thrown out entirely when broken. If you're rushing around this rock "knowing" stuff, you're morally out of control, and that makes you the problem here.

The following, in no particular order, are some of the questions I pitched myself during the gruelling Dharma combat I undertook when I became a monk. As the assiduous practice of zazen shifted me out of lawyer mode, things that had previously remained invisible – by slyly standing right on my chest – became clear.


(Tying yourself to a chair and shining a bright light in your face optional. But it worked for me.)

  • Do my convictions make me a builder, or a predator?
  • Do I applaud others who call for insight and solution, or judgement and reaction?
  • Am I embattled because I'm right, or because I'm wrong?
  • Is my strategy "bold advance", or "dogged defence"?
  • Am I fighting ideas, or people?
  • When I'm conservative, what am I conserving? Is my position rational, or emotional?
  • When I'm progressive, what would I impose on others? Would these measures eliminate suffering, or just redistribute it?
  • Do I count a victory when my actions result in more resentment, or less? When the right people suffer, or no-one does?
  • Do I abandon comrades accused of wrongdoing, or take a public stand for fairness and forgiveness?
  • What about opponents?
  • Do I practice realpolitik, or morality?
  • Do I speak louder while attacking, or defending?

Thanks to such questions (which in Zen practice are not directly answered), I sloughed off a lot of convictions that had accrued over the years by static cling. Now I have a core of well-vetted convictions that pass muster. (Mind: I don't say that I pass muster. I still have to hurl these challenges daily, and I'm daily shamed by the results. But that shame is productive.)

So give it a shot. See what you come up with.

It's the 1 Habit of Truly Decent People: they demand more of themselves than they do of others.

(Photo courtesy of John Pavelka, Wikimedia Commons, and the Democratic People's We Totally Are Guys Just Look At The Strength Of Our Conviction Republic of Korea.)
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