“For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God’s that the self-righteous should rush.”
-Piscene Patel from Life of Pi by Yann Martel
I believe that the problem of prison overcrowding, homelessness, wars, and even the fight you had with your mother this weekend have one root cause. That cause is not hidden away for only ascetics to find. It is as clear as daylight and staring back at us in the mirror. It’s us!
The problem is that we never really change ourselves. We don’t do what really matters. I don’t. I know that. I used to send $60 per month to starving children in Africa, and I did it because I cared. But in the grand scheme of things, I doubt that it really mattered that much. It’s easier for me to send money from my surplus to kids I’ve never met than it is for me to donate my time to a kid down the block who could use a father figure. It’s too hard to do the work of self-mastery. I’d rather work and make money, and then share some of my extras with others so that I can feel good about myself.
I know it’s not fair to blame all the world’s problems on you and me; there are certainly worse people out there. Murderers, thieves, and people who abuse their children. But in truth, our actions and our thoughts create the world we live in. And sometimes, even our best thoughts only lead to more suffering. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Otherwise, how can Americans send billions of dollars to Latin America to help governments crack down on drug production, only to see the problem increase? We have good intentions, but the results are often more troubles. Why is it possible to spend one million dollars per soldier per year in Afghanistan and still the war gets worse? How can we give our best to someone, only to have it thrown back in our face? Good intentions are not enough. We can’t just look at a homeless person and wish them well. Actions are what moves the world along.
I wonder what the result would be if I gave not my surplus but of my needed things. Instead of just a $60 a month gift, how about something that hurt? The gift, then, would have power. That gift would be one that really started solving the world’s problems. That’s the giving that Jesus talks about. “If a man asks for your tunic, give him your shirt as well. If he asks you to carry his bag a mile, go two. Forgive not seven times but seventy times sevens. If you give and expect to get back, what benefit is it to you?”
I don’t know too many people today who do that. The founder of Buddhism did, though. After years of self-mortification and deep searching, Siddhartha Gautama finally mastered himself and became enlightened. See how Jesus and the Buddha have changed the world? It may be that if only one person would learn to control, fully master the self, that would do more to benefit humanity than an entire program of free meals to low income families.
A comedian once told the story of a man who walked into a 7-11 and asked for a pack of Marlboro Lights 100. The clerk handed him a pack of Marlboro reds instead, and the man was belligerent. “What’s wrong with you? I said Lights, not Reds you dim wit,” the guy said. Well, the clerk was really upset, and that night he went home and yelled at his wife who in turn got upset and yelled at the kid, and the kid kicked the dog, and the dog bit the postman, and the postman…and on and on it went until it all ended up in the middle east.
The anger we release, the bad vibes we send out, do have to go somewhere. If we all did the work of filtering those bad vibes, the world would be a cleaner place. If every individual citizen would say, “I’m not going to be a part of this nonsensical violence.” If all individuals in our country would say, “I’m not going to buy anything that supports bad habits.” If you and I and everyone in the world decided to live by the golden rule that every country and every society understands, we would not have so many problems. Sure, we’d still have death. We’d still have disease, etc. But the deaths might be more bearable, calmed by the nurture of a billion kindred souls.
Is that likely to happen? Nah. But maybe if we at least recognize the cause of the world’s problems deep within ourselves, we can be vigilant and make sure that we try to kill that cause every time it rears its ugly head in the clearing of our own hearts.