Golden Rule, Common Good
Like Rome, the American Empire has fallen. We are done. The “Great Experiment” has failed.
Although the above sentiment is overly-dramatic, unfairly cynical, and wholly wrong, it still has risen from the depths to walk on our soil.
One of the things (of way too many) that’s bothered me about the Trump cancer upon American democracy has been the careless debasement of American ideals and institutions. All the things we were taught growing up to revere in our great nation were just wadded up by Trump and his cult and tossed in the corner without a thought. There was a turning away from decency, an abandonment of honor.
Now, to be very clear, America was never perfect. It’s always been a little bit scrappy — a little bit country, a little bit rock & roll. The Founding Fathers were giants of thought, but they were also hypocrites in behavior. It’s important to acknowledge that. In tandem, our classrooms taught us their high ideals but our playgrounds were always bullied by low thugs. And we’ve always been wheezing with the sickness of Racism — it’s our chronic illness.
We’ve held up proudly our shining city on the hill, the Constitution, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, etc. America’s great ideals have done great things and maintained great promise. The “Great Experiment” of America’s democratic republic truly has been one of the most successful government systems in the history of the world. Honor, decency, integrity were always demanded in our civic life. We may have failed in many ways, but our responsibilities and expectations were always clear.
The great men and women America has produced are some of the best in history.
All this makes it that much more disturbing the ease with which the Trump cancer took hold. The fragility and sickening of our democratic health is truly alarming.
But there’s something positive, something hopeful, something helpful to see in all this. It’s enlightenment. It’s the experience of learning not only from mistakes, but from being forced out of our stagnant bubble to grasp the bigger picture and then use that knowledge for good. We’ve seen why our stagnation is evil, why we need to grow, what weeds to pull and what flowers to cultivate. It’s time to bring back that knowledge to help ourselves.
Meaning is healing.
In studying religious history the more interesting and vital periods are the various instances where enlightenment (standing outside of one’s self, to see beyond the selfish ego) were realized. These realizations usually happened due to the worst times — times of oppression, sedition, Reformation, Crusades, insurrection, wars, etc. It is often during the worst of times where meaning, the best of times, is found.
These instances of enlightenment occur in every religion. Take Buddhism, for example. His great feat was watching and then participating in the popular movement of achieving ekstasis (ecstasy) — meditating to achieve a higher plane of consciousness. This was all well and good, but Buddha realized quickly that achieving ekstasis was also selfish — selfish because it was useless — it was meditating to yourself. Buddha realized if you meditate and achieve ecstasy (nirvana, bliss, awakening, heaven, etc.) and you do not learn and bring that knowledge back to help others, then you are just wallowing in selfishness. Ecstasy without enlightenment is impotent. Enlightenment only works if it brings the knowledge gained by ekstasis back to your fellow man to help the relieve the Noble Truths of suffering, to make life better for everyone (which, by byproduct, includes yourself).
The acts of the selfish ego can be horrific and destructive. This is the core evil of cults. But enlightenment can be the saving grace.
Throughout history you see all religions swinging back and forth struggling to achieve enlightenment, some more successful than others. And the long, long road of philosophy also has its own countless side streets into utilitarianism, pragmatism, rationalism, etc. that ultimately seek to peg down some practical concept of enlightenment. But this struggle with enlightenment also applies to democracies. Selfish episodes in democracies very much reveal compassionate lessons and honorable meaning.
Listen, we may be romantic, dramatic, pattern-seeking beings who can’t stop making our meaning of life extra-crispy esoteric, but the Golden Rule is the Golden Rule is the Golden Rule — by any other name it would be just as golden.
So here we are, America. We’re going through yet another crisis of identity, another upheaval. We are yet again pushed out of our selfish bubble. Will we use it to become enlightened? Will we open our eyes to see our cracks and then repair them, Kintsugi-style, to become greater? Will we bring knowledge back from the brink and apply it to be stronger?
The brilliance of the American Constitution is it’s a recipe to do just that. The American ‘great experiment’ isn’t dead, its flaws were dangerously exploited by a cult. That’s what cults, like white supremacists, do. Flaws can be fixed. They can be fixed in a democracy by increasing the equality, voice and power of the majority, by repairing and improving the rule of law.
Truth, honor, and love are not going anywhere. A tragic episode always reveals a straying from the path of the Golden Rule, but it is our civic responsibility to be active and not selfish, to return to the path, to get busy living instead of being busy dying.