Roy Mitchell continues a spiritual exploration based on his experience of working with disabled charities and himself living close to ME (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome):
Darwin’s theory of evolution – often expressed as ‘survival of the fittest’ and supported with a view of Nature’s natural state as being one of rawness in tooth and claw – underpins many of our societal structures and relationships with each other. We are in most cultures brought up to celebrate and respect the most talented, cleverest, strongest, beautiful, competitive and successful in all endeavours and fields. In spiritual terms placing God (or a prophet or guru) at the pinnacle can be viewed as an endorsement of this competitive view.
We are asked to measure ourselves against them and our own worth is often measured by society and ourselves by how well we can emulate them. On meeting new people very often the first or at least an early question is: “What do you do?” The person’s standing in the community is very often judged or placed by the response they are able to give. Those who cannot do, or say they cannot do, will have in the eyes of many the least standing, because of the underlying dominant competitive view of human endeavour.
It is true that against this dynamic there is the concept and practice of cooperation and fairness. But any neutral observer would, I think, quickly conclude that competitiveness, where the object is to gain or demonstrate an advantage or superiority over another, is the senior partner in most human endeavour by some distance. It is competitiveness which fuels and underpins all inequality, discrimination and unfair exclusion from rights we more easily accord to those who show themselves to be most like ourselves or as being most worthy of our regard by reference to our own subjective personal judgement.
As an example of this we need only look at the concept of nationalism. I expand nationalism to include love of: nation, country, ethnic group, religious organisation or any grouping which sets boundaries on who can be an acceptable member. Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi philosopher writing in the early 20th Century at a time of growing nationalism, points out that it is good to love your country (or group) because it demonstrates your capacity for love of something outside yourself. But it is not good to love your country (or group) to the exclusion of others. In common with many philosophers and other spiritual teachings he recommends moderation in all things. The ideal is to find the right balance between loving too little, loving enough, or loving too much. This I have found can be exceptionally difficult to discern or achieve.
In my journey through life, there are many situations in which I have found difficulty in attaining the right or any balance between respecting the rights of others and my own comfort. I use the word ‘comfort’ in a very broad sense here. Most of us seek community and even if we don’t it requires some sort of act to distance yourself from community. Whether seeking community or distancing yourself from it you are, in essence, seeking your own comfort. The need for comfort and its attainment is often predicated on our personal ideas on fairness and competitiveness. For example most recognise great inequalities in material wealth and life opportunities, and many of us try to mitigate this through charitable giving or social action.
I have found that the greatest difficulty is the scale of the need. How to choose who to help and what you should do to help. Without our even realising it, we all, I think, employ strategies and decision tools to decide or judge which causes and individuals to help. A competitive discrimination takes place where we favour one over the other because patently we can’t help all who appeal to us.
For many of us this discrimination or choosing sets up its own loss of comfort and we may even feel so overwhelmed by this loss of comfort that we either can’t choose and simply withdraw from looking or we transfer blame to those seeking our help by holding them responsible for their situation. This same dynamic occurs in our response to those who are different or disadvantaged by disability, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality or religion if they, by simply being different from us, challenge the rightness or comfort of our own community grouping or our place and or standing within our own community.
Another difficulty, referred to in the first discussion in this series, is the problem of getting all the information. This itself is part of a bigger problem. Our current knowledge base on any subject is not capable of telling us all the possible answers or results to any action we may take. Put simply: how do we know that what we do will have more better outcomes than bad outcomes? In my lifetime many past best practices have been shown to exacerbate a problem or have knock on adverse effects. This further adds to the difficulty in choosing between loving too little, loving enough or loving too much.
In these first two discussions I have sought to draw out some of the complexity and difficulties in giving voice and action to our compassion and with trying to “make a meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome” (Advices and Queries #18) .
A diversity of flowers: illustration by Vanessa Mitchell