This is an open letter to my younger blog followers, primarily (but not exclusively). I am much older than you in many cases, but I don’t consider myself totally irrelevant. Bruised, battered and cynical for sure; apathetic possibly—but not irrelevant (not yet anyway). And I’m not completely apathetic, or I wouldn’t be taking the time to write to you (now would I?).
In my younger days, even into my late 50’s, I thought of myself as more of an activist. Not that I was in the street marching and protesting, but I was always pretty strident in my opinions. I guess that I still am, although I’m not so quick to share them publicly anymore. I used to think of myself as “fighting the good fight.” Now, I think I was just banging my head against a brick wall.
I’ve always been a romantic and an idealist, with an ingrained hypersensitivity to injustice. At the same time I continue to harbor an innate sense of pragmatism at my core. The end result of this diametrically opposed combination of personality traits has been frustration and dissatisfaction. To know (to feel) how things should be, and at the same time to know how things really are produces the gap (the gray area). Life, our very existence, is not black and white.
Operating in the gray area can really mess you up. The Buddhists handle this conundrum with the philosophy of: “Do the least amount of harm.” Ever-practical, they understand the gap between right and wrong. That, in point of fact, that doing “something” often causes harm, and that doing “nothing” also causes harm. A simple illustration to prove my point:
To kill is to do harm. A man breaks into your home with murder and mayhem in his heart. Your family is at risk. To kill him is to do harm. Not to kill him also invites harm. Which action produces the least amount of harm? The Buddhists understand that we are always doing harm; sometimes the harm is intentional, and sometimes the harm is unintentional (is there a difference?). Doing “nothing” is also doing “something.” We live with the consequences of our actions, whether intentional or unintentional. The key to Buddhist philosophy is “Awareness.” To be aware of our actions—to be aware that doing “nothing” is also to be doing “something.”
For most of my life I have tried to do “something.” To enlist in the Marine Corps at a young age (when others didn’t) was to do “something.” To volunteer for the fighting in Vietnam (when others protested) was to do “something.” To believe what my elected leaders told me (without question) was to do “something.” And it caused harm.
To oppose bigotry, racism, hate and yet not take to the streets (doing “nothing”) also caused harm. To not shout out my opposition at the top of my lungs was to do “nothing” (and yet that “nothing” was “something”). And it caused harm. To cast a blind eye at the injustices of the world was to do “nothing,” and it caused harm. To oppose those very same injustices in a violent way would also be to cause harm. To take action can cause harm, and to not take action can cause harm. “Do the least amount of harm.”
Fighting the corporate wars was exhausting. Power without attendant responsibility quickly runs amok. My allegiance was always to my subordinates, those looking to me for leadership, guidance and protection. I always managed down (not up), and that proved to be a career ender. Those in positions of authority above me neither needed or appreciated my leadership, guidance or protection—they wanted [demanded] obedience. Usually, blind and unquestioning obedience. Whether it was in the Marine Corps, or the corporate boardrooms this blind obedience was expected and insisted upon.
This submission to raw power has never been my forté, and I’ve almost always challenged authority. Many of my so-called superiors considered me a thorn in their sides. Actually they viewed me as a royal pain-in-the-ass. Always questioning, always challenging, always digging in my heels in defense of what I thought was right. Corporate America does not like “thorns” or “pains-in-the-ass.” I was never able to successfully manage up the chain-of-command ladder, and I never felt that it was my responsibility to do so (rightly or wrongly). Speak truth to power and you essentially sever your own carotid arteries, and then quickly suffer rapid exsanguination. You bleed out and die.
Lo que hay (it is what it is). To accept the consequences of one‘s actions is to finally demonstrate a modicum of moral/ethical maturity. I mentioned in a recent blog post that I have basically abdicated my responsibility as an American citizen by living abroad as an expatriate. And to a certain extent that might be true. But I still despair for my country, and its future. And, as mentioned before, my non-action is still action of a sort. My non-action will result in passing the baton to you the younger generation—sorry. To fight or not to fight has always been the primal question. Even our brains and endocrine systems are hardwired to the flight or fight syndrome.
To knuckle under to brute force, be it verbal or physical, is to do “nothing.” To not question authority is to do “nothing.” To blindly follow our political, military and religious leaders is to do “nothing.” The more cocksure they are of themselves, the more evil their intent. To prohibit dialogue and questions is to promote repression, oppression and tyranny.
The 6th-Century B.C. Taoist philosopher *Lao Tzu, in his seminal work the Tao Te Ching, says it best: “Those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak.” Or paraphrased: Those who pontificate (or preach) oftentimes don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Remember this the next time your elected official, corporate supervisor or church leader starts blasting crap in your direction.
* Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching was my gateway introduction to eastern thought and philosophy. The wisdom was immediately relevant, and spoke to me in ways never before experienced. It led to many an exploration, culminating in a 15-year love affair with Zen Buddhism. I no longer practice Zen in a formal sense, but it still colors and flavors my life on a daily basis. At their core, most major religions have a mystical core: whether it’s the Gnostic gospels of Christianity, the Cabala of Judaism or the Sufis of Islam. These are the heretics who dared question the religious tenets of man, and chose instead to follow the core beliefs of their founders. Jesus Christ, the Buddha and the Prophet Mohamed did not start out to create religious institutions, rather they sought to understand the “Eternal” and the meaning of life.
Even the Buddha said it (again paraphrased): “Don’t believe me, prove it to yourself.” In other words personal experience is often (most times in fact) the best teacher. Blind, unquestioning obedience to ANYTHING is a bad practice. If the situation or person has merit, then it can withstand the scrutiny of questioning. Anyone who stifles your questions, your inquires, should immediately be suspect. “Trust me” is not an appropriate (or acceptable) answer, or management tool.
Those in positions of power and authority have the duty and responsibility to explain their actions, and just as important to be held accountable for those actions. That’s why I’ve always had trouble with authority figures: they often don’t know what they’re talking about, they therefore often make bad decisions, their power often corrupts their moral/ethical core and they do a lot of harm. The dissenters are not the bad guys (well, sometimes they are, but . . . ). Parents, teachers, corporate bosses, elected officials and church leaders can all be challenged (and they should be challenged on a regular basis).
You will not win any medals or accolades (or even gratitude) by following this course of action, so be forewarned. But you will have the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t meekly rollover and allow harm to occur on your watch. We all have a duty to thwart injustice whenever and wherever it’s encountered. Bullies thrive in an atmosphere of apathy. Moral and ethical maturity is a noble goal, even if it is rarely achieved or appreciated. To try is to do “something” (even if at times it causes harm), to do “nothing” (is also to do something) can easily cause a greater harm.
I leave you once again with the Buddhist imperative: Do the least amount of harm.
P.S. Set aside your electronics, read copiously (especially history), engage in meaningful dialogue, and be perpetually curious. Distrust all authority, and question everything. Empirical evidence will serve you well. Prove it to yourself.