The times we live in are full of wealth and opportunities so great that a king or queen of olden times could only have envied them. Housing prices are shooting up to unbelievable highs all over the world, creating millionaires out of ordinary folk. On our computers, we can be in touch with people tens of thousands of miles away at the touch of a mouse. Modern agricultural machinery helps yield such bumper crops that that the world is awash in food. But do we feel richer?
If anything, it is the pain of loss that gnaws at people, rather than our feeling the fullness of inward contentment. I would like to talk about the five ways in which people most feel the sting of loss, and how all of us can actively effect a remarkable spiritual transformation of such deficits into strength that can build a better world:
- 1. Hope
These days, a young person just graduating from college, loaded with debt and with years of hard work behind them, can't expect to find a job waiting. Even worse, company mergers, bankruptcies, and job outsourcing overseas effectively eliminate the security our parents had in a world where study and hard work could get you ahead. My dad worked at two jobs, as a professor and as an airline pilot, and today he draws two pensions. But even pensions are at risk today, and people are scared.
In my life, I have seen that whenever I have been rejected or my worth not recognized, it has compelled me to look deeper at what I have to offer. When the university passed over me for a tenure track position, I realized I could create an entire new curriculum for a meditation course and offer it completely outside the system I had depended on for my entire self image. Rejection does not mean you are no good or used up; every door closed presents a window onto new opportunities you never could have seen, had the company head not said, "No, there is no room for you here."
In bygone years, politics drew the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, towering examples to their times and in history books. As a boy, I remember admiring President Kennedy. I worked for his campaign and took to heart his words, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Today, in a daily more pressing crisis of rising oil prices, the US president cannot even find the gumption to urge people to conserve. Politicians now seem simply to do favors for their friends and interest groups. In the US, the two polarized parties barely seem to manage to talk civilly together. Young people look in vain for someone they can look up to and emulate, and without this they are more prone to getting into serious trouble.
Politics are made up of individuals. They have not always been uplifting. But as Mahatma Gandhi said, the positive always prevails. When the corrupt and spiritually exhausted Roman Empire fell, people of vigor and hope, clustered in small Christian communities, put away in seed form the entire repository of culture, ready always to take root again and grow when the soil became right. I would say, never let your ideals die. Follow them, live for them, and most of all, find others to commune and work with in a network of hope. If we build the positive, that will be what is left standing when the old withers and collapses.
Children today don't have secure neighborhoods to play in, and the touting of sex just about everywhere compels them to face very weighty issues so early that they don't get to stay kids. When I grew up in California in the 1950's, I walked and bicycled freely all about town and my parents never worried. Today I don't see kids running about to climb trees in the park or hit the neighborhood store for their mom. They are indoors watching TV, or playing highly structured sports, or they are close by where their parents can watch them, because freedom isn't safe anymore.
Children need to play and explore. When my son was growing up, I used to take him and a group of his friends around to parks, soccer fields, and skateboarding places where I would disappear from the activity, yet be there when need arose. Paradoxically too, towns and neighborhoods are safest when people stroll around them in numbers, whether in the day or evening. The more we don't people our neighborhoods with our own presence, the easier it is for a thief or predator to set up shop there. It is time for all of us to stand up and reclaim our environment both for ourselves and for the innocent joys and exploration of our children.
There used to be a parent in every home, but with the high cost of everything now, both parents are out working. When my mom stopped being a full time housewife to go back to school, we were shocked; I remember how empty the house felt when we got home from school. Today that is the norm. Moreover, long hours of work strain relationships, and many marriages wind up in the divorce courts, with severe life consequences for the couple and their kids. I know from experience that even for those lucky kids whose parents do stay together, they probably both work. Coming home from school to an empty home brings up a hollow feeling, at the age when our innermost need for love and guidance are more desperately strong than ever.
That is why I believe it is worth the economic and personal sacrifice to keep one adult in the home at times the kids will be there. It does not have to be a parent; when my child was growing up, I was on hand after school not just for him, for his friends whose parents worked. By mutual agreement, one parent can be on hand in the neighborhood to do things with the kids when they return home from school. An empty home breeds passivity and TV watching; an enthusiastic and caring adult assures the children that their needs matter.
With the erosion of family bonds and of financial stability, we no longer feel that if things go very badly for us, that any government agency, company, or even network of friends will be there for us in the hard times. A few years ago, I made an awful blunder which cost me my position and place in an organization which I had been with for 30 years. Just a few years before that, my marriage of seventeen years had ripped apart, I had lost large sums of money, and I was left single parenting a child who needed a father with even deeper love and solace, rather than the wracked wasteland I felt in my soul. As a result of all these events, I lost almost all of the friendships I thought would be with me for my whole life. My pain was wrenching, and there were days I did not think I could bear it any longer.
Particularly in such isolation, the erosion of support past people had from neighborhood institutions and loving friends leaves us feeling empty and helpless, cut off from our very selves. Any loss rips apart the dependable and predictable world we knew. Things will never be the same. But for me, those very pains caused me to journey deeper in myself and discover unexpected wealth. With little outward help, I was compelled to get to know deeper parts of myself that were panicked like a frightened child because they never had to show themselves and develop.
In ancient Greece, Plato said in his "Republic" that the philosopher could not find deep love and wisdom without being forced to do so by unpleasant experiences and hard choices; these test us to our depths. The lesson of loss is, the most fearsome danger opens out into the greatest opportunity. With inward courage and wise choices, every one of us can co-create not only our own happiness, but a world that once again creates inspiring leaders, one safe for our children and possessing a security so strong that any past nation could only have dreamed to achieve it.
Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran's edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal is an international workshop leader in passage meditation and in courses for those looking for end of life spiritual care and for the spiritual step component of twelve step programs. Visit Stephen's work at www.directawakenings.com.