Lately I’ve written a lot about politics and economics, and I have to remind myself that no matter how important the issues may seem, and how emotional the debates become, politics and economics simply provide the context within which we live our lives and make our choices. If we take it too seriously, we risk losing ourselves. It reminds me of the old Billy Joel song, “Angry Young Man” from Turnstiles, one of my favorite Joel albums:
“I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness & righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too, I had my pointless point of view,
Life went on no matter who was wrong or right
And there’s always a place for the angry young man,
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand.
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes,
He can’t understand why his heart always breaks.
His honor is pure and his courage as well,
He’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell!
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man.”
I see political activists on the left or right, socialist or libertarian, centrist or extreme, and realize that while they convince themselves that they are seeking truth and justice, many are deluded – trying to find from an external cause what they lack within. Those with whom they disagree are disparaged – fascist, communist, religious extremist… reminding me of another song, this one by Rush and lyricist Neil Peart — “You bet your life” off the Roll the Bones album.
The song conjures up a vision of a young man in the world, surveying all the different beliefs and lifestyles. The chorus/refrain is a collage of different ways you can bet your life:
“anarchist reactionary running-dog revisionist
hindu muslim catholic creation/evolutionist
rational romantic mystic cynical idealist
minimal expressionist post-modern neo-symbolist
Armchair rocket scientist graffiti existentialist
Deconstruction primitive performance photo-realist
Be-bop or a one-drop or a hip-hop lite-pop-metalist
Gold adult contemporary urban country capitalist
The odds get even – you name the game
The odds get even – the stakes are the same: you bet your life.”
You bet your life. In each person’s life the true reality is not the power games in Washington (or even Madison), nor is it the ideological struggle between various philosophies. It’s not about unions or corporations, or about taxes and regulation. It’s not even about religion. Reality is about friends, family, and daily choices we make about what to do in complex situations where people’s emotions and perhaps life direction is on the line.
It’s a coward’s way out to hide behind an ideology or a political cause. It’s a way of avoiding life, of losing oneself so deep in an abstract reality that one doesn’t recognize the pitfalls of “consciousness and righteous rage.” Life does go on no matter who is wrong or right.
The political and cultural backdrop may change, but each person is confronted daily with the need to make choices on what to do in diverse situations — to help a friend or not, to cheat on a spouse, to lie to a stranger, to steal or even kill. Yes, the backdrop will change, but to go back to Neil Peart and Rush, you have to stick it out (from the Counterparts LP):
Each time we bathe our reactions
In artificial light
Each time we alter the focus
To make the wrong move seem right
When caught up in a cause, a belief or a sense of “righteous rage” as Joel put it, it’s easy to make the wrong move seem right. It may be dramatic like the Hutus feeling they had to eliminate their Tutsi rivals, or it may be trivial, like pulling out an opponents’ election signs from front yards — either way, it’s easy to rationalize doing something wrong. Whenever one is driven by ideology to justify doing things that would otherwise be wrong, that person has lost perspective.
The older I get the more I sense that reality unfolds as it must. The political and economic turmoil that surround us reflects humanity’s inner state — and is a mere stage for the unfolding of dramas about ethical and moral choice which each of us undertakes. To focus on the political quest and lose sight of one’s personal connections, friendships and moral choice can lead to a kind of psychological pathology. It’s why so many political leaders turn out to have personal failings — Senator Craig seeking gay sex in airports though he was a social conservative, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy’s liaisons with women, or the moral scandals of religious leaders like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Whenever one gets more caught up in the abstract cause or game than focused on the moral implications of each individual choice, one risks losing sight of what is right.
Greenpeace attacks whaling ships, “Anonymous” hacks corporate and governmental websites, PETA throws red paint on fur, Timothy McVeigh bombs a Federal Building because America’s government is ‘too oppressive’: any time one uses ideology to rationalize actions that otherwise would be wrong, that’s a sign of moral nihilism: anything for the cause.
When I was 11 years old I bought a 45 RPM with Les Crane reading The Desiderata, written by Max Ehrman back in 1927 – when the world was about to face unpleasant times. It’s wisdom still comes through:
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
(The Desiderata, by Max Ehrman, 1927)