1. The courage to be good
A recent conversation with friend woke me up to a surprising realization: I seem to have regained the courage to be good, after years of hiding behind the cover of evil.
We are born with both good and evil in us. We grow up breathing both, unconsciously. Around middle school, when I started to differentiate between good and evil, a few forces pushed me to intentionally renounce good and embrace evil.
First, being a teenager, I was embarrassed by the “good.” Being kind and compassionate seems so un-cool, so preachy. It was what the parents said, which certainly couldn't be right.
Second, I was intrigued by “evil,” the tempting power of the devils. The society stands ready to rationalize the evil by calling it “utilitarian self-interests,” “survival of the fittest”, and so on.
Third, my self-awareness was not clear enough to tell the real motives behind my acts of kindness. Adding to my own confusion, some peers tended to accuse me of hypocrisy or kindness-with-strings-attached -- which, upon introspection, was sometimes true.
Embarrassed by my hypocrisy, disappointed by my lack of pure goodness, and fearful of the accusation from my peers, I decided to abandon “good” altogether, and embrace evil -- and owning it. I thought, if I never claim to be good (loving, kind, compassionate, generous) in the first place, then no one can call me a hypocrite. If I own my evilness (selfish, calculated, manipulative, cynical), and if the society glorifies evil as the normal state of the business, then I am given the get-out-of-jail-free card. How convenient!
So, I accepted the bargain from Mephistopheles. For the past few years, I more or less hid behind the cover of evil, to protect the vulnerable, gentle part of the heart. And Mephistopheles indeed had his power. Calculated self-interests got me what I wanted. But what I want is not what I need. I had “material success,” but bore the burden of the conscience. The gain of worldly points is no match to the loss of spiritual peace. I knew something wasn't right. I knew it wasn't sustainable, but seemed to be trapped in my own set-up. How can I back out of the cocoon of evil that I have spun for myself?
The thick ice melts slowly, but the summer bike journey across the US served as the decisive strike, with burning sunshine penetrating through years of closed shell. The kindness of strangers along the way, the many free meals, soft beds, and encouraging smiles blasted through my last layer of defense. Listening to the spiritual classics for 8 hours a day, day after day, also helped to cleanse the soul.
I realized, good and evil is a choice, and it is my choice. For too long, I have shied away from embracing the good because of my own doubt, embarrassment and fear. I did not have the courage to be kind, out of the fear that people might call it hypocrisy. I did not have the courage to be good, out of the doubt that my faith in good is not strong enough.
But now, the heart and courage is being rehabilitated. Now I know what is good, and what is evil. I have the courage to be good, while confronting the stubborn roots of evil inside of me. I am regaining the muscle of love that has suffered much atrophy for many years. It will feel awkward, artificial, or even hypocritical. But I am no longer afraid. Because, good or evil, it is a choice. It is my choice.
And yours, too.
2. Spiritual and Material, Self and the World
As an old joke goes: there are two kinds of people in the world -- those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.
We like to create duality. In so doing, we have created many false dichotomies. Two pairs of duality have been on my mind a lot recently: the spiritual and the material, changing the self and changing the world.
Spiritual versus material, this is probably one of the oldest duality. The question is: are we having a spiritual crisis, or a material crisis? Is ours a crisis of the economy and the ecosystem? Or a crisis of meaning, values, and happiness?
Here is the current, partial answer. The interconnected crises of our time is as spiritual as it is material. One can not solve for one without solving the other. The ideas -- mindset, worldviews, belief systems -- creates the world around us. For example, the "Abrahamic View of Nature" contributes to the way we treat nature.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
And vice versa, “economic foundation determines the superstructure.” The physical world we created then acts upon us, reinforcing the spiritual-material unity. Thus, the spiritual and the material are like chicken and egg. They are essentially the same problem, inseparable.
The next question is, how should I engage with this two-in-one crisis? Do I become a monk and spread awareness and happiness, or do I work toward changing the physical economy, to be more aligned with nature?
The current answer is: the path to the spirit lies within the material, just as we change the mind through the body. If I become a monk, then the society can compartmentalize and tokenize my work. “Oh, it’s the monks talking about enlightenment and happiness -- nothing to do with my day job.” Given that the world is so materialist, one can work toward a societal consciousness shift through changing the physical economy.
At least that is the naive assumption I hold now.
The next natural question is, should I try to change myself, or change the world. What if I am too busy making the world a better place and have no time for self-improvement? What if I am so focused on self-transformation that I need to retreat into wilderness or recluse? This is one of the favorite topic for idealistic young people, not without a heavy dose of narcissism and Messiah Complex.
But, is a layer of skin really thick enough to separate “me” and “the world”?
The current answer is: self-transformation is the only way to change the world, because “you must be the change you want to see in the world.” Similarly, engaging the world is the best way to transcend the self. As Mao said, “If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality.”
In the unity of the spirit and the material, of the self and the world, let us have the courage to be good. One small act of love at a time.