We often wonder how to find inner peace in the midst of this troubled world, feeling that our own state reflects the turmoil, the injustice, the grief we see around us. This can lead us to a fork along our individual path toward personal growth and right living.
Should we apply ourselves to working for just causes, social, political, environmental, or should we concentrate on modeling right behavior, be it keeping healthy, living consciously and lightly on the Earth or following a path of spiritual growth?
There is certainly a school of thought that the fabric of our society can only improve with the development of better citizens. This means that individuals need to work on themselves as a first order of business before trying to reform the world. It means that attempting the reverse order of work will be futile because people can't act in ways that are, shall we say, out of character. I think there is profound truth in that point of view. However, I don't believe that the question is so simply resolved.
This is where we need to think beyond the bounds of logic and rationalism. It is possible that seemingly contradictory viewpoints can both be true. We need to temper sober intellectualism with imagination and a tiny bit of magical thinking at times to see a greater truth, even if it doesn't appear to make strict sense.
There is a phrase in the Jewish tradition, "tikkun olam," which translates roughly to healing or forgiving the world. It refers to doing good deeds, the effect of which is to contribute to this healing. It works in several ways simultaneously, one of which is to engender virtue in the soul of the deed-doer. A less obvious way is that it encourages others by example to behave well. And the least obvious way is an effect of literally healing the world. (The little bit of magic?)
So what this means in terms of practical life choices is this: You need to work on all fronts. If following a regimen of conscious eating, tending to your physical fitness, and adopting spiritual practices such as meditation or prayer results in your becoming more calm, clear-headed and able to see the high road in the choices before you, you will be able to help heal the world by your actions in the world. But if you leave acting in the world for others, you blunt whatever good you accomplish by your own realization. There are opportunities, and there is a subtle sense of timing that maximizes effectiveness in the environment. Your work on yourself will likely sharpen your sense about these things and lead you to act in more effective ways. To not capitalize on your potential to make a difference by seizing the moment is a failing in this regard.
There are many examples of courageous individual action that has changed the world. Consider any hero who appeals to you. The thing that matters is that we take some action, that we not allow ourselves to feel hopeless or insignificant in the face of the task before us. Here, too, some magical thinking is in order. When you don't see your own efforts as sufficient, have the conviction that you don't know the possible ripples of your actions, that one act will bring about the next, that each one will build on the last, that life will respond with resources, strengths, connections to move you toward the goal.
The result of following such a path with heart is that work in the world reinforces work on self, which in turn equips you for more effective work in the world. You only limit yourself when you exclude one approach or the other.
Avram Chetron retired from high school teaching seven years ago, spends his time singing, writing, teaching, and appreciating Ashland's blessings.
The Tidings column invites articles on all aspects of inner peace. Send 600- to 700-word articles to Sally McKirgan email@example.com.