How Can We Make a Difference?

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

Sometimes our awareness of entrenched human selfishness and amorality is almost overwhelming, particularly when it is found in so many organizations — local, national and international, governmental, commercial, and nonprofit. Faced with powerful, widespread greed and exploitation, manipulations, brutality, and indifference to individuals — cloaked at times under idealistic or humanitarian motives — it is easy to become cynical, yet shrugging off such behavior as "just human nature" is by so much supporting and insuring its continuation. Is there anything that we as individuals can do to change practices that occur on such a large scale?

The two commandments of the New Testament hold a key, I think: to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and — "the second is exactly like the first" — to love our neighbor as ourselves. By love Jesus did not mean attachment, which originates in our limited sense of self and consequently brings with it fear, possessiveness, and self-centeredness. The love Jesus spoke of, rooted in our spiritual depths, is as all-encompassing and all-knowing as divinity itself. When we love divinity wholeheartedly, it cannot help but manifest in our heart and, in time, transform us. For, as the ancient Hindu precept has it, Yadyad rupam kamayate devata, tattad devata bhavati: whatever a divine being loves or desires, that thing it becomes — and we are divine beings, though we seldom realize it, all springing from the same spiritual source.

It is our inability to truly love that allows us to ignore, if not promote, the behavior that makes human life so tragic. By centering our consciousness in the superficial aspects of our natures we see ourselves as fundamentally separate and disunited. We tend in this state to feel that spiritual values and views, while true in principle, are utopian and impractical. But to live according to the basic spiritual imperatives of mankind is neither naive nor unreasonable; any impression to the contrary comes only from our being out of step with the cosmos. Divine love, freeing us from our individual limitations, lets us see reality more clearly, undisturbed by self-centered emotions, opinions, and preferences. In replacing fear and self-centeredness with compassion, we become what we can and should be — nobly human. While adopting such a course will not always mean success, basing decisions on the worldly wisdom of selfishness and fear often turns out to be the most foolish and imprudent course of all.

Changing our own way of living and thinking may seem an inadequate response to large human problems because individually we seem insignificant. But by who we are, each of us has a profound influence on human life everywhere. Humanity exists in a psychological atmosphere fully as real as the earth's physical atmosphere, and every individual draws upon and contributes to it. By a deliberate effort to aspire toward the divine within us and see the divine in others, we automatically produce a strong impact on this psychological atmosphere, raising the whole by strengthening the positive elements in it. Conversely, when we are selfish, fearful, self-important, or uncontrolled, we emphasize those negative energies which are also available to mankind. By our aspirations and actions we are having an influence for good or ill on countless members of the human race who attract those same psychological energies to themselves.

We also, of course, have many opportunities to make a difference at home, at our jobs, as local, national, and international citizens, and as members of various organizations. When we attempt to make divine love the core of our life and aspirations, we add something of value to whatever groups we are part of. Looking at life constructively, we can make a conscious effort to appreciate and bring out the best in those around us, whether or not we agree with them or like them personally. So-called "enlightened self-interest" is still promoted by some as a social good, particularly for organizations; yet self-interest can be "enlightened" only when our self includes all mankind, indeed all the planet. We are only fooling ourselves if we think we can make positive contributions and changes through self-seeking activities designed to bring about our own personal vision of what is fitting. The ends cannot justify the means — we live in a universe of realities, not just appearances. Our motives and attitudes at least equal in influence the visible consequences of our actions: egotism and arrogance, conscious or unconscious, will neutralize whatever good we wish to accomplish. The minute-by-minute process of living, the inner quality of our life and consciousness, these comprise "reality," not any set of outward appearances or results we would choose to point to. We become what we think, feel, and do, and by these choices constantly shape our future self and at the same time contribute to the destiny of mankind.

We cannot expect organizations to act on principles that we in our own lives are unwilling to practice. If we wish to have organizations and governments of vision and compassion which seek to practice their professed ideals, then we each must do our part by striving to live up to our own individual ideals: by refusing to become apathetic or cynical so that practices and policies go unexamined, and by participating constructively in our many contacts with others. We each bear the karma of the actions of the various groups or bodies we help form, and by our consent or indifference take part in their decisions. Often it takes a great deal of courage to practice what we believe, yet perfect love does cast out all fear, and with love of divinity and our fellow human beings at the center of our aspirations, we can find the inner stamina we need in trying to live up to whatever decisions and commitments we undertake, whether to family and friends or to society at large. Only when enough people make a deliberate effort to rise above egoism and fear, and to embody the spiritual values they feel are true, shall we see a reduction in institutionalized selfishness and amorality and real, lasting improvement in the lot of mankind.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)


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