It’s every man for himself, right?
But something inside still nags at us – serving our own needs to the detriment of the needs of others leaves us feeling disconnected, out of sorts, lost in the loneliness of our own empty castle. A piece of the puzzle is missing. Somehow self-centeredness didn’t deliver the joy it promised.
What if there’s no such thing as private happiness? What if our happiness is inextricably intertwined with the happiness of others? What if our own private happiness was never the goal? What if we’ve got it wrong all along?
Cultivating virtue is an ancient dream and a present necessity. It’s plain to see that if we do not become better people, individually and collectively, greater and greater suffering will be unleashed sweeping millions of innocent people away in its maelstrom. This is no time for hand-wringing and intellectual paralysis. The urgency has never been greater. It’s time for action.
When we turn to the world’s wisdom traditions we find no shortage of serious deliberation on these issues. The ancient lament has never dimmed – why are human beings so notoriously unwilling to cultivate their own virtue? Every philosopher, prophet, and visionary has cried out the same sad song. If we are serious about finally committing to real change, there are plenty of road maps to suit all styles. Some are religious and rely on a traditional monotheistic God-concept. Some are more nebulous in their conceptualization of the transcendent. And others are utterly secular, based on reason alone. Take your pick. Any map will get you there.
In Judaism there is a phrase, tikkun olam. It means “repairing the world.” From the many threads of Judaism – the Mishnah, Hasidism, Kabbalah – comes this fundamental affirmation of the essential role of human agency and action in the continuing creation of the world. When God rested on the seventh day the Creation didn’t end. It is ongoing. Only now, it is we who must work to heal the wounded world. It’s as if the world is a broken saucer, shattered into a million pieces, and each of us has a shard at the end of our fingertips. It is our sacred duty to share in the task of putting the saucer back together with the glue of kindness. Each of us is a spark from the divine, and with our open hearts, keen intelligence, and dawning courage we feel, see, and act to carry out God’s unfinished work. Tikkun olam is both our obligation and our opportunity for it is only in service to others that our own joy is born. So it is that our kindness heals ourselves.
Working for environmental restoration, animal rights, human rights, economic justice, social justice, curing diseases, addressing poverty in a meaningful way, working in education, journalism, law, and medicine – these are all obvious examples of tikkun olam. Less obvious are the smaller, private acts of kindness in an ordinary day – allowing someone to merge in front of you on the freeway, holding the door, silencing your cell phone in a theater – these everyday kindnesses create a world that works for everyone, where each person feels respected and acknowledged. This is not to say that we are to sacrifice our joy and unduly take on the endless burdens of the world as our own. We cannot singlehandedly fix the world. We are only to lift our own piece of the load. As the Talmud enjoins, “It is not for us to finish the work, but we are not free to ignore it.”
The Hindu tradition of India teaches that the universe is a supportive, orderly system called dharma. The laws of nature as well as the social norms that bind human society are all a part of this mutually sustaining interconnected system. Since each of us is supported by the universe – we did not make the air we breathe, the water we drink, nor the sun that grows our food – we too must share in the mutual sustenance of the whole. Our moral obligation is to discover whatever latent talents, strengths, sensibilities, and tools lie within and develop them into a skill set that serves the wider world around us. When we live purposeful lives of service we are fulfilling our dharma. This can take many forms – creating a thriving business, raising conscious children, bringing beauty and edification to life in vibrant works of art – whatever work lifts up the lives of others while meeting your obligation to yourself and your family. Dharma is all about the win-win. When you thrive, I thrive too.
In chapter three of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna spells it out. “Every selfless act is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead.” In other words, when you share in the healing of the world, you become an instrument of the highest aspirations of the universe itself. As the Sufi poet Rumi puts it, each of us a reed through which the spirit of God blows. The “uni-verse” is the one song. Our intentional, conscious, compassionate actions are the music of the cosmos.
The Golden Mean
As Aristotle wrote in the Nichomachean Ethics, “The ultimate purpose in studying ethics is not as it is in other inquiries, the attainment of theoretical knowledge; we are not conducting this inquiry in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good.” For Aristotle and his mentor Plato, virtue meant human excellence. We become excellent when we have the rational capacity to discern between deficit and excess on the perilous road to virtue. Courage, for example, is a middle point between cowardice and rashness. Healthy self-love is a middle point between self-loathing and arrogance. To find and stay on the Golden Mean takes rational deliberation, practice, and habituation. Finally, we become what we do – we become virtuous by consciously practicing virtue. Our repeated actions construct our character. And when we live in accord with our fully realized virtuous natures, we experience a deep and abiding satisfaction and joy. Aristotle and Plato didn’t need theology to bolster their vision of the good life – they were humanists to the core. We bring into this world everything we need to be good. As the Chinese philosophy Mencius said, “Human nature tends toward goodness the way water tends to run downhill.” Being good isn’t as hard as you think it is.
Being good is a decision. Seek whatever supports and nourishment you need to begin and sustain this urgent work. If your heart turns to God, let it. If you feel stronger away from traditional religious structures, find your own path. Don’t stop and get caught up in debate. The need is too great. Do whatever it takes to be good.