Sunday, August 3, 2014

The impulse of charity, part I

 Recent political events in the United States regarding the arrival and disposition of refugee children raised many questions for me regarding the need for charity, and what our responsibilities are in relationship to others.

This led to contemplation of ethics and morality in the context of Gurdjieff's teachings, Swedenborg's examinations of unselfishness and unselfishness, and their place in the landscape of humanism and morality in general.

If I had to distill the question into a single issue, it would probably be, what is my responsibility to others? All of us are faced with this question in every instant of our daily lives, and that microcosmic manifestation extends its tendrils into every crevice of Being, ultimately creating a web that draws all of mankind into it—individual by individual, culture by culture, society by society, nation by nation, whereby we live with one another and try to honor (or not honor) one another's individuality.

Karl Deutsch said a nation is "a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors." Although this was said strictly to illustrate the political realities of nationhood, it might just as well apply to our inner lives. Gurdjieff's exhaustive catalog of mankind's aberrations repeatedly cites both of these features as driving forces in the degeneration of man's consciousness. One might, in fact, point out that Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson is, for all intents and purposes, all about this subject, and how the external manifestations — those of nations and peoples — are a direct result of their inner conditions.

Some of the people I know have described Gurdjieff as a committed conservative; others, as a liberal. He was certainly a conservative in view of his unabashed support for the traditional; yet he was certainly a liberal in terms of his compassion. One thing is certain: he insisted that, as it is, mankind has no morality; real morality must be acquired through what he called conscious labor and intentional suffering. This important question dovetails in to questions about organization, or, order and disorder. Disorder, the tendency towards higher and higher entropy, is the natural trend, and only conscious effort can go against it to create order. This common understanding from modern physics has a great deal to do with Gurdjieff's concept of time, the merciless Heropass; and everything that is disordered and increases entropy is mechanical, that is, unconscious. The conscious goes against disorder; it makes an effort. It must understand where it is and what order consists of in order to make that effort.

Real morality arises from conscious effort. A man has to acquire real morality; it isn't born in him, and rote learning won't install it. Real morality is born from Being; and Being is only acquired, in the end, through suffering. Perhaps this important fact gives us some insight into why spiritual disciplines don't, by default, allow followers to develop spiritually. They are forms; that is, they are artificial constructions designed to follow a pattern. They cannot, in and of themselves, make us suffer; all they can do is create conditions that may later foster a collision between what we think we are and what we actually are. That collision may produce suffering (it isn't inevitable); and, if we suffer enough, and suffer willingly, perhaps we will reach the beginning of some real form of morality. This, once again, isn't inevitable; there are many distractions.

The overall line of questioning I pursue here was raised by one of my very closest friends, a childhood friend who is unusually wealthy, even by today's standards. He moves in financial circles the majority of us only read about in the newspapers and, more often than not, resent; and he reports to me that almost everyone he meets in these circles is morally bankrupt.

Power and money, however, tend to corrupt to the core at any level; and anyone, even on the smallest scale, who thinks they are free of these influences and morally superior to the very wealthy is deluding themselves. Make no mistake about it; we are all at risk of becoming victims of the allure of money and power. It's simply a matter of scale. It turns out—to my great dismay—that high-minded liberals around me, although openly contemptuous of banks and wall street moguls, are all too willing, even eager, to throw long-term business partners and people they claim are their "best friends" under the bus in order to preserve their own financial interests.

It's easy, in other words, to pontificate about what is right and wrong when it is not your own survival that appears to be at stake. The view from the end of this gun is very different, depending on which end you are on.

This is where the individual collisions take place on the question of morality. Everyone is forced to make difficult choices in life, no matter how rich or poor they are; everyone has to make decisions about who they will help, when they will help them, how they will help them, and why. So on a day-to-day basis, we are all making decisions based on our own understanding (whatever level it is at) of morality. Yet we are doing it automatically, according to a set of assumptions and manifestations that don't arise from the essence of our being, from our soul; and as such, no matter how good or bad our choices look from the outside, when compared to various organizations, forms, or structures that purport to have the answers about how morality should look and what it should consist of, we are not actually being moral. We are just trying to look moral: to look moral either to ourselves, or others. This is accompanied by a set of inner justifications, rationalizations that reconfigure the facts about life to suit our assumptions about morality.

I will continue to examine this question in tomorrow's post.


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