Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A New Year Resolution for Our Times

A new year is usually a time of hope and optimism. We wish everyone happiness in the coming year and make resolutions for ourselves, confident that this time we really will keep them.

This year, however, we find ourselves in the midst of a financial crisis, with several countries reeling under war or civil strife, and most of the world facing the threat of terrorist attack. This dampens the enthusiasm for new year resolutions, but I’ll make one anyway, and I hope you’ll join me in it.

A Missing Link…

Looking back at 2008, I find one human quality in terribly short supply around the world: that of feeling connected to one’s fellow human beings. The war atrocities in Africa or the terrorist attacks on Mumbai can only be possible if the perpetrators do not feel a connection with their victims (and, in some situations, the same people might be both perpetrators and victims at different times). You obviously do not wound, torture or kill someone if you can empathize with them, sharing their pain as a fellow human being.

This basic fact is true even when aggression seems justified (at least to the aggressor). The Israeli government appears to believe that its attacks on Gaza are needed to keep the Israeli people safe. This is by no means certain and the logic behind this belief has been questioned by many in recent days.

Can – and should – one group of people buy security at the cost of their neighbours’ lives? The Israeli government logic is based on the fairly widespread belief that the lives of “our own people” – defined by citizenship, religious identity or anything else – are more precious than those of “others.” Military action therefore is not a matter of right and wrong; it does not stem, for example, from a desire to stand up to an evil regime or to prevent wrong-doing. It is simply a question of “us” and “them.”

Growing Tribalism

In recent years, we have seen a good deal of evidence of this rather tribal mentality of “us” and “them” – the shocking attacks of 9/11, Bush’s comment about being either “with us or against us,” umpteen media reports of casualties in Iraq that counted American but not Iraqi lives, etc.

In 2008, this trend moved to its logical conclusion – narrowing the view from “us” to “me” – and the rest of the world be damned. Top executives in global enterprises thought only of immediate profits leading to fat bonuses for themselves, with no thought for the suffering that could – and did – follow for millions around the globe. Après moi, le déluge, as Louis XV so infamously said back in the eighteenth century.

Poisoning Babies

Last year’s milk scandal in China, meanwhile, may appear to be smaller in scale than the global financial crisis if counted purely in terms of the numbers of people and economies affected. But to me it epitomizes the lack of human connectedness which is the basis of our humanity. One must surely be dead to the feelings of one’s fellow human beings before one can poison infant formula. At least six babies lost their lives as a result of the greed of entrepreneurs who mixed the industrial chemical melamine with milk and infant formula to hide the fact that they had diluted the milk (including that in infant formula) with water. An estimated 300,000 – yes, 300,000 – infants became ill, many with kidney stones and other kinds of kidney and liver damage that will lead to lingering ailments.

The Human Connection

What a depressing picture. And in all these cases, the common thread is the inability to imagine the other’s pain.

Which brings me to my resolution.

After a year so short on empathy, I turn to all of the world’s wisdom traditions to find a new year resolution that returns to the fundamentals of human existence. I resolve to live in the awareness that I am connected to all other human beings, irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, and all the other divisions we have created in this world…

For inspiration, I turn to this quote from Sufi Master Vilayat Inayat Khan, courtesy the blog Inspirations and Creative Thoughts (http://mysticsaint.blogspot.com/2009/01/human-suffering-lamentation-of-mystic.html):

when one's consciousness is no longer tied
to a particular being
consequently one extends one's consciousness
from the cause of one's being to that of all,
all beings!

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