“The press is ferocious. It pardons nothing. It only hunts for mistakes. Every motive is twisted, every gesture criticized.”—Princess Diana
How would you respond if Time magazine were to ask you to write an article on “The Crisis of Values in America Today”?
As a practicing journalist, you’d know with a fair degree of certainty what the editors were looking for. Following Time’s guidelines for “balanced reporting,” you would avoid any search for eternal verities—far too controversial! Instead, you would interview the big names in the fields of philosophy and religion at several major universities, and you’d interview the authors of several recent best-selling books.
After chatting with these media icons, you’d begin to write. Deftly woven around neatly counterbalanced quotations, your article would conclude nothing, offer no new basis for hope, and would conclude with an empty flourish:
“While the experts in their respective fields appear to have advanced the search for values on scientific, philosophical, and religious grounds, one wonders whether their theses will impact our daily lives very much in the third millennium.” Blah. Blah.
A culture of malcontent
Presenting opposing arguments—the more antagonistic, the better—with a view toward fomenting controversy is a perennially popular journalistic ploy. In her book, The Argument Culture, linguist Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. documents how public discourse in government, the media, and the courts has become polarized to the point of deadlock, with theatrical staging routinely taking the place of useful, issues-oriented debate.
Dr. Tannen suggests that we might be able to break the habit of arguing by borrowing from the argument styles of other cultures—Italy’s, for example. In Italian families, at least stereotypically, it’s common to shout and even throw things while debating which television program to watch. The advantage, Dr. Tannen says, is that everyone ends up knowing for a certainty how each member feels, and they generally succeed in arriving at a mutually tolerable consensus. By contrast, Tannen describes the increasingly warlike tenor of public debate in this country:
Of course it is the responsibility of intellectuals to explore potential weaknesses in others’ arguments, and of journalists to represent serious opposition when it exists. But when opposition becomes the overwhelming avenue of inquiry—a formula that requires another side to be found or a criticism to be voiced; when the lust for opposition privileges extreme views and obscures complexity; when our eagerness to find weaknesses blinds us to strengths; when the atmosphere of animosity precludes respect and poisons our relations with one another; then the argument culture is doing more damage than good.
Values: beyond polarization
Implied in the assumption that we stand a realistic chance of settling our differences is a faith in commonly held values. Values are not trivial. They powerfully affect our lives, spelling the difference between happiness, and pain, despair, and hopelessness. Our values tell us where we’re moving—whether toward spiritual sickness and death, or toward clarity and enlightenment. With a clear view of values, we can break away from deadlocked polarization based on self-interest, and begin to move forward again.
What is a “value?” Values are the criterion by which we judge whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, helpful or harmful. Values are the magnifying lens that reveals: “This is how the world works. This direction leads to joy; this path leads to suffering.”
If values weren’t firmly fixed in the fabric of life itself, there might be no consequences, and we could do whatever we please—even as Jean-Paul Sartre and his fellow nihilists have fatuously suggested. But we are surely reaping the consequences of our Sartrean intellectual inheritance. Values—ignored, distorted, or mis-perceived – are the source of all of our culture’s festering wounds: violence, drugs, teen suicide, high-school shooters, and a pandemic sense of meaninglessness. We appear to have forgotten how the world works. Perhaps, as Dr. Tannen suggests, it’s time we sought help from cultures that have nurtured more practical approaches to their values paradigms.
The directional relativity of values
Millions today are prone to excuse behaviors that harm others, from simple rudeness to rape and murder, by claiming that values are relative, or that they simply don’t exist. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the culture of argument, our views on the relativity of values tend to be highly polarized.
“Values are relative,” say the disciples of Jean-Paul Sartre. “We can do whatever we please.”
“Values aren’t relative,” the religious fundamentalists reply. “They’re absolute. If they weren’t, civilization would crumble.”
Both sides assume that the relativity of values implies lawlessness. The difference is that the nihilists are in favor, while the fundamentalists are against. But what if the assumption is false? India, to name a culture radically different from our own, has produced one of the most enduringly moral civilizations in the world, while calmly accepting the relativity of values as a given. How is this possible?
In Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t, author J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda) suggests the answer. To illustrate the relativity of values, he gives a homely illustration: A lazy slob spends his days in a welter of cigarette butts and beer cans, watching TV. One day, the slob gets up, dons his least-greasy shirt, and goes out to find work as a used-car salesman. His friends all congratulate him, delighted that he’s doing such good thing. “Good,” because he has improved his chances of experiencing a more refined level of happiness.
But what if Mahatma Gandhi had left his work among India’s poor to find work as an investment banker? Everyone would say, “This man has fallen!” In other words, saints and slobs have different priorities. One person’s downfall is another’s exaltation. But, as Walters explains, in each case, the direction of values is the same: toward expansion of awareness, which carries with it a corresponding increase of joy.
The sages of ancient India tell us that happiness comes by expanding the boundaries of our present awareness: by steadfastly developing our capacity to love, to serve others, and to perceive truth. Gradually extending the power and range of the human instruments of awareness, we increasingly are able to embrace the infinite, joyful awareness of God, which the sages tell us is the ultimate source of even our most trivial enjoyment.
India’s philosophy counsels us not to waste time lamenting our faults, but to “go with our strengths,” doing our best within our present capacity. By steadfastly increasing the power of good in ourselves, we develop the power to transcend our shortcomings. In the Indian view, God is a beneficent Divine Mother, tirelessly ignoring our imperfections as She labors to encourage our growth toward transcendent joy.
In contrast, western philosophy wastes little time on shades of gray. Rather, it more or less encourages the notion that a single moral flaw, amid even an ocean of goodness, tarnishes us irredeemably. Bowing to the either/or dichotomies of formal logic, the West tends to sneer at mere half-perfected mortals. In fact, western journalists and lawyers feel that they’ve performed a public service when they try to debunk the individual who rises above the common herd. In their eyes, a person is never better than his faults.
Show trials of the nineties
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current wave of sexual harassment lawsuits against public figures in business, government, and religion.
Sensationalizing a personal weakness with appropriate courtroom histrionics, while portraying the alleged victim as pathetically as possible, legal hired guns demonize the defendant in order to persuade the jury and media to accept the image of him as a monster, and render appropriate financial damages.
Predictably, nearly all of the high-profile sexual harassment cases have proved fraudulent. The list is long: Tawana Brawley, Cardinal Bernardin, Larry Ellison, Dr. Fran Conley, Gary Dotson, Kathryn Tucci, Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe), Lieutenant Kelly Flynn, William Kennedy Smith, Kathleen Willey (who seemed earnestly credible, until Linda Tripp divulged that Willey had hotly pursued a sexual tryst with President Clinton). And, finally, Anita Hill. (for evidence of falseness of the Hill charges, see Warren Farrell, The Myth of Male Power.) The list of overturned cases of alleged child sexual abuse is much longer.
Dr. Deborah Tannen documents a growing shift in the public’s feelings about the relentless virtue-sniffing by journalists and lawyers. “According to the Pew Center survey, a whopping 65 percent of the public said that press coverage of the personal and ethical behavior of political leaders is excessive,” she writes. In a July 1998 Pew Center poll, 70% of the respondents felt that President Clinton’s private life had little effect on his ability to do his job, while a mere 14% saw Monica Lewinsky as a victim.
What is society to do with citizens who contribute mightily to the common weal, yet haven’t completely overcome their human weaknesses? Our faults are real; we can’t dismiss or rationalize them. (“I meant well!”) And, of course, society has an obligation to restrain those who harm others: thieves, rapists, and murderers. But in the Indian view, flaws never define the individual. Indian philosophy calmly accepts that human nature is bound to fall short of perfection until it transcends itself in God.
God versus the lawyers
We treat people badly. We neglect to pay our taxes. We murder. We cheat. We have extramarital affairs—simply because, in this one, messy corner of our lives, we aren’t yet fully aware of the extent to which our actions harm us. As the great master of yoga, Paramhansa Yogananda, observed, once people achieve true wisdom, they no longer dream of acting in ways that would diminish their happiness.
Meanwhile, the karma we create by our mistakes falls due, as we reap the painful consequences our awareness increases. Overcoming a serious fault after endless struggle, we feel expanded, free, and filled with a breath of new joy. All the while, contractive minds persist in condemning us, anchoring us to our wasted past. But bloodlust plays no role in the divine view of human development. God rejoices in our successes. In fact, the saints tell us that God doesn’t even notice our faults.
Sometime in the early 1980s, I was privileged to attend a talk by Sunyabhai, a highly advanced disciple of the great Indian yoga master, Sri Ramana Maharshi. Sunyabhai, whose name means “Brother Zero,” was over 90 years old at the time, yet he skipped agilely onto the stage like a child. (He passed away in the mid-1980s.) The bliss of his spiritual attainment was overwhelming—it was like a wave of weightless joy. In his presence I was impelled to the thought: “This person has found what I have been seeking for countless lives – I would gladly devote untold lives to obtain what he has.”
Experiencing the aura of joyous divinity that surrounds the saints, we feel our own goodness powerfully awakened. In the fresh awareness of God’s love, we tend to feel uneasy about condemning the faults of others, intuitively reminded that to do so would diminish our contact with the Divine.
Sainthood vs. perfection
Observing how the saints deal with their weaknesses, we can learn a great deal about how God defines values, as opposed to how they’re defined by the journalists and lawyers.
Even great saints, until they achieve final transcendence, can manifest egregious weaknesses. Swami Kriyananda tells how he met a saint in India who had a terrible temper. “I wouldn’t have doubted for a moment that he was actually blowing his top,” he recalls. “Yet neither would I have dreamt of questioning his sainthood.”
The tremendous energy required for liberation expands a saint’s weaknesses, making them stand out in stark relief. Should we therefore withdraw from the saints, lest their faults embarrass us? Or should we avoid the spiritual path, lest our own energy blossom and expose our imperfections? Surely that would be cowardice, a retreat from the rough-and-tumble of the spiritual journey, a craven withdrawal from the quest for joy.
The saints show us the answer to all our prayers for unalloyed happiness. Their undaunted striving in the face of their grievous imperfections, and their final liberation despite those flaws, speak eloquently of the patience and compassion with which we should view our own faults, and of the fathomless depth of God’s love. As a great French saint, Jean Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, put it, “If you knew how much God loves you, you would die for joy!”
India’s ancient teachings are profoundly compassionate. “Never call yourself a sinner, for to do so is the greatest sin,” Paramhansa Yogananda told his students. And again he reassured them, “Remember, a saint is a sinner who never gave up!” Indian philosophy has little patience for “virtuecrats”—those individuals who seek to impose their straitlaced proprieties on others. Yogananda’s views on hypocrisy were wry in the extreme: “The ‘character-detective’ is a pig, eating the garbage in other people’s back yards,” he said. And, “Those who love to talk about the sexuality of others, I ask them to tell about all the sexual errors in their own life. And these sanctimonious people who persecute others, they are the worst sexual cases themselves.”
Institutions that are based on harsh propriety seem predestined to be riddled with hypocrisy and scandal, because God’s irony is appropriately ferocious. Yet He stands remote from the titillations of snickering moral judgment. He isn’t concerned with our faults, only with our continued progress.
In the West, reason has created an either/or culture with little compassion for human frailty. But reason lives in the airless realm of mental abstraction. The real world is compassionate at its core.
(Nayaswami Rambhakta spent two years as an assistant in the legal office of Ananda. He is a freelance writer and editor with clients in technology, academia, and publishing.)