Totalitarianism has been tried many times and it essentially fails because human beings will in all ways subvert a singular narrative that is imposed by force. The fates of the totalitarian states of the last century illustrate this. Authority, the power to dominate the minds and bodies of humanity, has solved this problem by creating and dispersing a deadly form of freedom.
This deadly freedom, embedded in a mix of popular aspirations that are inherently conservative and fearful, lead not to the purported goals of happiness and personal agency and fulfillment but to an arid apathy anchored to a narrow and crippling selfishness.
What has this freedom got us? A mortgage? Unfulfilling jobs and confused relationships? Environmental and social degradation? High youth suicide rates and equally high levels of substance abuse? Chronic levels of depression, alienation and a culture industry that is largely bankrupt, caught in a materialist loop that offers escape from reality rather than commitment to it? Yearnings that seem illusive and cannot be framed in current language because the language for such deep aspirations is absent from the current personal, social and cultural context?
Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace prize winner and award winning author, in a recent interview with Time Magazine stated that the two most important dangers for humanity at present were hatred and indifference. The needed antidote to this condition he claimed was hope. Hope, even in hopeless times, needs to be invented (like Jacob the Liar) and Wiesel claimed that he “invented reasons to hope.”
Hope, however, is elusive and needs to be nurtured. It does not spring up sui generis and Wiesel would be the first to admit that his roots in Jewish mysticism are the source of his ‘hopefulness’. This is what he had to say:
“I believe mysticism is a very serious endeavor. One must be equipped for it. One doesn’t study calculus before studying arithmetic. In my tradition, one must wait until one has learned a lot of Bible and Talmud and the Prophets to handle mysticism. This isn’t instant coffee. There is no instant mysticism.”
Freedom gets in the way of this rootedness in tradition and this is why so many non-western societies are either suspicious of western democracy or out right antagonistic towards it. Mysticism is grounded in tradition, clothed in the language and actions of the present, and set ever before us all as we struggle into the future. It is the perennial source of hope.
Traditions are sources of deep transformative power. There are five things you will find at the heart of all traditions be they overtly spiritual such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Indigenous spirituality; or more secular varieties such as humanism and romanticism.
Firstly, there is love. Wake up each morning and wait for an explosion of love to course through your veins. “I’ll wait a long time,” a cynic might quip. Yet this is the first condition, and love needs to be waited upon. Yearned for, courted, invited and fussed over.
Secondly, there is energy. All traditions are sources of energy, they carry energy from the past, focus it in the present and project it into the future. We are ancestors of this future and need to open up to the energy of tradition. It is a New Age folly to think we can invite energy into our lives without supplying a context for it. The absence of context is largely the result of toxic freedom and the isolation of the individual ego.
Thirdly, there is discipline. Traditions embody discipline; they enable it and make it OK to be disciplined. They do this because they create a meaningful and loving context for it. Remember that the essence of love is discipline. The two are indissolubly linked.
Fourth, and emerging from the previous condition, there is purpose. Our lives need a purpose that sits beyond our own selfish needs. Purpose directs our life, generates energy and hones discipline. Purpose means that we do not spill our life energy into the abyss of meaningless habit. Purpose creates the perfect feedback loop that will not let us down.
Finally, there is passion. When purpose is activated we become passionate individuals. We exude confidence and charm. We actually enjoy ourselves immensely as we engage with the fissures in our lives, our communities and the world at large. We live for the other, rather than fleeing from it.
Listen to the world; hear it groan, hear it sing. In listening we become still enough to hear the real song and pick up the fragments of our lives, see which parts we have got right, heal the wounded and denied selves that so far have held us back. Be creative and embrace the gifts that litter our world and see the deception that lies at the heart of the modern dream of freedom. The paradox comes here: only when we reject deadly freedom do we really become free.