Friday, April 6, 2007

Wisdom Begins with How We See the World

by Troy Chapman

Some Christian people I know represent everything I value and consider wise. Others represent everything I stand against and consider unwise. I’ve often wondered, for example, how Jerry Falwell and Mother Theresa could come out of the same religious tradition, or the Puritans and the Quakers, or George W. Bush and Abe Lincoln.

This isn’t true only of Christianity. Osama bin Laden and the great spiritual poet Rumi are both Muslims. Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela both come from the political left, as Adolph Hitler and John McCain both come from the political right.

Indeed, if I drew a line between the wise and the unwise in our world, it would not cut between the various ideologies, philosophies and religions of the world. It would cut right down the middle of almost all of these ways of thinking. There are wise people and aggressively unwise people in almost every camp.

This got me to thinking about what exactly separates the wise from the unwise in our world. I define wisdom as the desire and ability to bring goodness, beauty, and love into the world. Let’s make a list according to this definition.

Column 1
Fox News
Bill O’Reilly
George W. Bush
Jerry Falwell
The Puritans
Louis Farrakhan
Osama bin Laden
Fidel Castro

Column 2
PBS’s “Now”
Bill Moyers
Abe Lincoln
The Dalai Lama
The Quakers
Martin Luther King, Jr.

If wisdom is the desire and ability to bring goodness, beauty, and love into the world, those in the first column are unwise and those in the second are wise — or at least wiser. So what distinguishes the two groups? The answer is that each group sees life in a fundamentally different way. The first group sees life as war; the second sees life as a process of spiritual evolution. We can call the first way of thinking “at-war thinking,” and the second way “in-process thinking.”

Each of these ways of viewing the world produces specific and different characteristics, as apple and orange trees produce different kinds of fruit.

At-war thinking is suspicious and distrustful, while in-process thinking is open and trustful. I recently had a disagreement with some Christian brothers and was amazed at how quickly they assumed malice on my part. Because I disagreed with them, it was presumed that I had bad motives and was trying to harm or undermine them. For people who see life as war, everyone is a potential enemy and is treated as such. People who see life as spiritual evolution see everyone as trying to come further into awareness, and disagreement as nothing more than part of this process.

At-war thinking is also fearful and angry for the same reasons, while in-process thinking is less fearful and angry. Listen to Fox News for a clear example of this on one side and PBS or international news on the other side. Fox oozes fear and anger and encourages viewers to think the same.

At-war thinking is rooted in us vs. them and seeks win-lose solutions, whereas in-process thinking is inclusive and seeks win-win solutions. The most basic logic of war is: Identify the enemy and try to destroy him. The most basic logic of spiritual evolution is: Develop mutually beneficial relationships. Think of Osama bin Laden and Mahatma Gandhi.

At-war thinking is also inflexible and unforgiving. In-process thinking is more flexible and forgiving. At-war people are eager to punish. If they’re religious, they are preaching fire-and-brimstone and are quick to condemn. If they’re political, they are writing laws, building prisons and calling out the bombers. In-process people are more apt to preach love and kindness and to use their political power to help the weak and uplift the poor.

At-war thinking is likewise intolerant. This is partly due to self-righteousness and partly to the belief that people intentionally choose to do wrong. In-process thinking tends toward tolerance because it knows first that one’s own ideas of right and wrong may not be enlightened and second that when people do wrong, it’s a reflection of their level of consciousness. Where at-war thinking sees malicious evil, in-process thinking sees spiritual ignorance and struggle.

Another characteristic of at-war thinking is that it is closed to criticism. The political right in America labels all critics traitors. Again, this isn’t a left-right thing. Various left-wing dictators around the world do the same thing. People who see life as war see criticism as attack. People who see life as spiritual process may not enjoy being criticized but they accept it as valuable and potentially helpful to their own growth.

At-war thinking also produces cut-throat competition. This kind of competition has been adopted throughout our culture as at-war thinking has risen to power. It has changed everything from our economics to our domestic and foreign policy. It’s known as “social Darwinism,” despite the fact that it doesn’t facilitate true social evolution. True social evolution is facilitated by what I think of as cooperative competition, which is competition within the larger context of common interest. This is the kind of competition embraced by in-process thinking.

Lastly, at-war thinking seeks power over others, whereas in-process thinking seeks relationship with others. Relationship is about give-and-take, while power is about take-and-take. Again, one is the logic of war, the other is the logic of spiritual evolution.

The examples I’ve used here are pretty clear-cut as examples ought to be. But in reality, the line between at-war thinking and in-process thinking isn’t always this stark. Often we slip back and forth between them — especially when threatened. Which is why I think it’s an important topic to explore. The more clear we are about what each type of thinking represents the more we will be able to consciously choose how we want to see the world and maintain our commitment to this way of thinking more consistently.

By all means look at the world around us and try to identify at-war thinking and in-process thinking. But only do it for the purpose of applying what you learn to yourself. There’s no wisdom in an ain’t-it-good-to-be-wiser-than-them attitude. That’s just an inside-out version of the very thing we’re saying no to.

Wisdom is to be found in knowing how important our worldview is and in choosing, developing, and advocating a view that brings more goodness, beauty and love into the world. Ask yourself what it means to view the world as in-process, rather than at-war. How does it suggest we treat people who are acting wrongly? How does it suggest we deal with conflict? With our own inner demons and struggles? What attitude does it suggest toward technology, nature and God? How does it redefine words like “progress,” “success” and “justice”?

In the end, wisdom is more than just knowledge. It’s a whole way of seeing the world and it begins with an answer to the question: “Are we here to win or are we here to unfold?”


Maryann said...

I just read a news story about the cancellation of the "Chocolate Jesus" exhibit in N.Y. An artist had created a milk-chocolate, full-size crucifixion sculpture and even intended for viewers to take a bite. The Catholic League organized a protest and potential boycott, noting "All those involved are lucky that angry Christians don't react the way extremist Muslims do when they're offended - otherwise they may have more than their heads cut off." A classic example of hiding behind the comfort of "at least WE don't kill people like THEY do" while plainly displaying the ugliness of your at-war mentality! If wishes were horses then this artist would be mutilated. Nice.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant analysis, Troy. If everyone could learn to see life as a process of evolution, we would have a world of role models--everyone acting as a light to his/her fellow beings. If everyone could practice self-reflection as you do, that would be a start. Self-reflection is to evolution as oxygen is to a spark; nothing comes of inertia. Would you, I wonder, have had the time and motivation for such self-reflection had you never been incarcerated? Was your initial crime, ironically, necessary to produce the goodness that you now share with others?
By the way, since you obviously read so much and recognize the greatest minds (the disguises of God, to paraphrase YOU), I recommend that you read some of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (I Asked for Wonder, for starters). I know you'll connect with him, too.