Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Every nation has the government it deserves.
--Joseph de Maistre

Across the land today, Americans cast votes in the national magical ritual called Election Day. If you’re like me, casting a vote in a country of 310+ million souls can feel a bit like writing a message to a friend in, say, Cairo; corking it in a bottle; and throwing it off Pier 40 in San Francisco, hoping it will someday be received. Consider: If the U.S. election took the form of a Spiral Dance, and we assumed two seconds per dancer to gaze into the eyes of each partner whirling by on the other side of the chain, it would take our nation 19 and a half years (!) to complete the dance.

For you who have already voted, and for those waffling over whether to hazard a visit to your polling station on the way home, it seemed right to me to recall the notion of civic virtues, and the specific virtue of Citizenship.

I had originally thought of tackling the virtue of Voting, but then reconsidered: In an age where so many voters feel baffled by the complexity of our own society and its governance, and perhaps a tad jaundiced about what good it really accomplishes, the status of Voting as an unquestioned virtue falls into, well, question. If your vote rests on a foundation of ambivalence because you don’t like any of the candidates running for office, for instance, or rests on ignorance of the likely impact of passing an initiative whose text occupies ten or more pages of 9-point Helvetica in your voter’s guide, does its expression still constitute Virtue?

The journey of a nation is very much like the journey of a person through life, or of a pilgrim on a path of redemption: We achieve different milestones over time. What do we make of this period in history which we find ourselves, the Great Recession, a time of doubt, crisis, rage, and public soul-searching about whether our country has gone to hell?

An early 20th century businessman by the name of Henning Webb Prentis, Jr., gave a provocative if dark suggestion for the journey of a democracy, in an often-misattributed speech first delivered in 1943:

Again and again after freedom has brought opportunity and some degree of plenty, the competent become selfish, luxury-loving and complacent, the incompetent and the unfortunate grow envious and covetous, and all three groups turn aside from the hard road of freedom to worship the Golden Calf of economic security. The historical cycle seems to be: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to apathy; from apathy to dependency; and from dependency back to bondage once more.

If you’re like me, this disturbing passage has the ring of uncomfortable Truth, and it seems America is sitting somewhere along the selfishness-apathy-dependency portion, depending on which group (the competent, the incompetent, or the unlucky) you examine.

If you were to ask a religious seeker, s/he might liken our current state to a Dark Night of the Soul, a period of profound feelings of loneliness, desolation, and doubt. This description of spiritual crisis, made famous by St. John of the Cross, resonates with descriptions from other traditions, including Islamic Sufism and Buddhism. In fact, the Vipassana Buddhist meditation lineage describes a middle period of the path to nibbana/nirvana, marked by awareness of specific forms of suffering, called dukkha nanas. One of these stages, muncitukamayata nana, might be best translated for modern Americans as the feeling of doom that spurs us to whip out our communicator and holler: “Scotty, beam me up!”  

How do we get through crises such as this one? It would be tempting to say that at least the spiritual pilgrim has a guru or teacher to provide a crucial Anchoring to get the pupil through the dark patches. Most times, though, this is very much not the case, and not even the Divine is in evidence. That’s the whole point of the Dark Night: One feels alone, and not in the bright aspect of contemplative Solitude.

As I first began to write this, the Chilean miners previously trapped in a lightless room 1/2 a mile under the earth are tasting their first 24 hours of life back under the sun. And I think their story is worth re-visiting, because I first mentioned it back at the caravansary of Hope. The antidote to despair is Hope. And the critical ingredients of Hope include 1) a suspension of disbelief, and 2) letting go of the illusion of isolation. The miners were rescued by their own collective resolve to survive, by the feverish efforts of their colleagues to make a plan and act to save them, and by the collective will--the collective will--of an entire nation keeping vigil. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera told the captain of the miners after he emerged: “You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this.”

Experts say the virtue of Citizenship derives from the root virtue of Justice. But it is not an individual virtue. It is one of the group virtues. As we noted back at Activation, Americans paradoxically prize individualism, but often come together to solve our problems. “United we stand,” we say.

Can we overcome our sense of isolation, doubt, and cynicism? Can we suspend our disbelief? How?

For myself, I turn in part to sangha, sacred community. Part of my sangha is Reclaiming, and I gravitated to Reclaiming because it embraces activism as an explicit and unapologetic spiritual path. This past Saturday I attended Reclaiming’s annual gigantic Spiral Dance--a celebration marked by altars recalling extinctions, losses, and the deaths of loved ones passed on. Towards the end of the event, we finish with aimless crowds of hundreds upon hundreds of strangers grasping hands, smiling into each others’ eyes, and singing:

Let it begin with each step we take,
And let it begin with each change we make.
Let it begin with each chain we break
And let it begin every time we awake!
This year we shall renew the Earth!

For me, Citizenship may not, after all, derive from Justice. I think it ultimately traces back to another root virtue: Transcendence.

So, whether you suspend your disbelief today long enough to throw out a message in a bottle or in a voting booth, don’t forget to look around at your friends, neighbors, and loved ones, and remember that the path forward through the Dark Night is Hope, and the portal to Hope lies in the juicy paradox of letting go (of despair) while grabbing on (to the hand of another).

May we see the gates of Citizenship, and perhaps make a home there.

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